Boris Johnson: Beyond London

Newsweek International, May 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

Boris Johnson: Beyond London


The mayor has big ambitions. That's what worries Tory leaders. By Greg Williams

Boris Johnson is late. Five minutes after the scheduled start of Mayor's question time--a quasi-monthly opportunity for members of the London Assembly to demand a public accounting from the city's top elected official--he arrives at last, wearing a backpack over his raincoat and carrying a large takeout coffee, his schoolboy thatch of platinum-blond hair even more disheveled than usual. He stuffs the backpack beneath his desk, casually tosses down a crumpled copy of the agenda, and removes his coat to reveal the traditional garb of the British ruling class: a navy-blue suit. "We'll take item two while the mayor composes himself," the chairperson, Jennette Arnold, says dryly.

The assembly members are seated in a horseshoe with Johnson at the open end, a lone figure in an expanse of purple carpet, his back to a big window overlooking the gray expanse of the Thames. As the Conservative mayor begins delivering his report, Labour members of the assembly try to shout him down, and the session soon degenerates. Arnold bangs her gavel. "I will not have this question time turned into a campaign," she chides.

Like it or not, however, that's exactly what the tumultuous meeting is--and it's only a warmup. On May 3, Johnson is facing off in a rematch against one of Labour's wiliest campaigners and most ruthless operators. The victor will run Europe's largest and most diverse city for the next four years. In their last contest, four years ago, Johnson defeated the then-two-term mayor, Ken Livingstone. No politician in the city is more entrenched in London politics or more skillful at street fighting than Livingstone, a man who earned the nickname "Red Ken" in his titanic struggles against Margaret Thatcher in the '80s, when she was prime minister and he led the now defunct Greater London Council. During the 2008 race, Livingstone called Johnson "the most formidable opponent I will face in my political career." In the run-up to this week's vote, opinion polls seesawed, but Johnson seemed to be pulling ahead in the home stretch.

Win or lose, Johnson can't hide his biggest dream: to succeed Conservative Party leader David Cameron as prime minister after the next general election, in 2015. "I think if you did a chronology of Boris Johnson's interventions to the right on issues that he has no responsibility for over the last four years, it is absolutely clear that Boris is intent on replacing Cameron," says David Lammy, Labour's member of Parliament for Tottenham. (The neighborhood became notorious as the center of last summer's London riots.) "Clearly he needs to win this next election in order to achieve that ambition," Lammy continues. "And I think that is very worrying, because his eye would not be on London if he were to win." Still, most observers seem to agree that Johnson is well on his way to getting his wish. "He has the advantage that when he took office there were relatively limited expectations of him," says Tony Travers from the School of Government at the London School of Economics. "Even, I suspect, his own."

Johnson's mayoralty has been a most unlikely success story. An unabashed member of the privileged classes, he has somehow managed to win the affection of a Labour-leaning city as it endures the harshest cuts in public expenditure since World War II, under the Conservative-led government's austerity prescriptions. His alleged marital infidelities that have been lavishly documented in the tabloids under headlines like "Bonking Boris Made Me Pregnant" and "Boris Sacked for Lying Over Affair." (He has been married to the mother of their four children for 19 years.) His weekly column in The Daily Telegraph reportedly brings him a second income of [pounds sterling]250,000 a year--a sum he has described as "chicken feed," even though it's more than 10 times the average income in Britain. During his term as a member of Parliament, he was fired from the cabinet. …

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