Prominent on the home page of the Back Boris website (www.backboris.com) is a box counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the London mayoral election. For casual visitors it presumably serves as a gentle reminder that 1 May is drawing steadily nearer. For Team Boris, however, the countdown is loaded with tension and emotion.
That, they tell themselves when they look at the numbers, is precisely how long we must maintain our total vigilance. That, measured to the second, is the still painfully extended period through which we have to make absolutely sure Boris does not say one of those appalling, offensive, stupid things he has been in the habit of saying all his life.
At the time of writing they are succeeding. The word from Conservative Central Office is that exhausted members of Johnson's staff turn up occasionally to touch base, shaking their heads in disbelief that they are still getting away with it. "It's hard to believe they are talking about a grown man," says one insider. "It's like teachers describing a very bright child with naughty ways who is somehow starting to behave himself in class."
Many might say it is even harder to believe that they are talking about the front-runner in the election for one of Britain's most important jobs: the man who may lead a city of 7.5 million that will soon play host to the Olympic Games, the politician who may control an [pounds sterling]11bn-a-year budget that comes with surprisingly feeble restraints on how it is spent.
But so it is. In what could be called a postmodern joke by the Conservatives, a man with a lurid history of verbal incontinence is playing the 21st-century election game, with all its gaffe-traps and correctness tripwires--and he is winning.
The Svengalis of Team Boris are doing their bit, but we have to acknowledge first that the trick couldn't work without a superhuman effort of self-control by the man himself. It is something even he once thought beyond him. Only three years ago he told my colleague Sholto Byrnes in an interview: "The real point is that if I did try to acquire gravitas in a calculated and systematic way, I'd probably fall flat on my face. So I think, better to fly by the seat of your pants."
Now the flying is over and the calculated acquisition of gravitas is under way. "Boris is trying very, very hard to be serious," says Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, who follows affairs in the capital closely, "though personally I'm not sure he's very different underneath." A senior reporter covering the campaign sees it the same way: "Boris has shown remarkable discipline. You can see that he has resolved some sort of inner conflict and is now struggling to achieve something in politics, in what may well be his last chance."
Like a man overcoming a stammer, Johnson has locked down that almost pathological compulsion to dazzle and shock whoever he happens to be talking to, which again and again has driven him to say the unsayable. He has also conquered his habit of either being late for appointments or not turning up at all.
But if the candidate is trying hard on his own account, the people around him are also straining every muscle. The joke on the campaign trail is that every time Johnson appears in public his chief minder, Lynton Crosby, keeps him squarely in the cross hairs of a sniper rifle, ready to bring him down the second his mouth runs away with him.
Crosby, who made his name helping John Howard to successive victories in Australia, and who ran Michael Howard's Tory campaign here in 2005, joined Team Boris after Christmas, adding some very expensive expertise to the mix. Though he is talked of as a master of the dark arts of election-fighting, his principal impact seems to have been straightforward. "He has injected urgency into the campaign," says that …