How Do You Solve a Problem like Boris Johnson (and KP)?

By Smith, Ed | New Statesman (1996), August 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

How Do You Solve a Problem like Boris Johnson (and KP)?


Smith, Ed, New Statesman (1996)


What 'should be done about brilliant individualists who don't play by the rules? That is the dilemma preoccupying two highly conservative English institutions. The English cricket establishment is agonising over the future of the hugely talented maverick Kevin Pietersen. And the Conservative Party is weighing up whether Boris Johnson, who has used the Olympics to reassert his populist credentials, is a realistic candidate to lead the party as well as London.

In both cases, the debate about the prospects of an outsider quickly morphs into a referendum on those already in power. If David Cameron had secured a majority in 2010, or looked very likely to win one at the next election, there wouldn't be any midterm speculation about Johnson. If Andrew Strauss were scoring many runs and England hadn't just been beaten 2-0 by South Africa in the Test series, he wouldn't feel under such pressure about the estrangement of Pietersen. Supporters of Pietersen are usually critics of Strauss, just as supporters of Boris are usually sceptical about Cameron. Could Boris be prime minister? Should Pietersen be brought back into the fold? It is another way of framing the question: how good a job is being done by the man in charge now?

Very modern manager

"Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere" Nor can one England brook a double reign," Prince Henry says to Harry Hotspur in Henry IV, Part1. But these parallel stories--Strauss and Pietersen, Cameron and Johnson--are much more interesting than the common tale of two big characters who cannot fit into one space. They are studies in differing kinds of ambition, alternative routes to the top.

The similarities between Strauss and Cameron are more exact than those between Pietersen and Boris. At university, both Strauss and Cameron showed a marked disdain for outward ambition. Cameron displayed no interest in student politics at all; itwould have seemed deeply naff to be so earnest at such a young age. In the same way, Strauss was never talked about as a future England captain, mostly because he seemed so casual and disorganised. "Captain us?" a university team-mate said later. "He couldn't even find his kit."

Did Strauss always have deep ambitions that were well concealed by his politeness and reserve? Or did he realise only by increments--as he gradually worked his way through the field--that he could go so far? I've never been sure of the answer. Perhaps he isn't, either.

Both Strauss and Cameron have an instinctive grasp of modern establishments and how to navigate a path through them. Each finds that the language of modern leadership comes naturally. Strauss is much further into his career than Cameron; 35 is quite old for a professional sportsman and we can already judge him an excellent captain of England. He was an exact contemporary of mine at school, university and in county cricket. When I was captain of Middlesex, I played alongside him. We talked a lot and there was a lot of common ground.

But, from the outset, I realised Strauss was far happier using the language of modern management. Hearing phrases such as "360-degree assessment" and "lines of accountability" was enough to make me want to retreat into a dark room with a revolver. …

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