If there was one moment that summed up the enduring popularity of Britain’s favourite politician, one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, it was during the summer hysteria of the Olympics. Standing on stage, in front of a packed Hyde Park, Boris gave a stirring – if somewhat verbose (“The excitement is growing so much I think the Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale) – speech about the greatness of London and Britain, along with some public bashing of Mitt Romney, to be greeted with thousands chanting his name in reply.
It was a far cry from the reception received by the the Chancellor, who was roundly booed whilst handing out medals during the Paralympics. Osborne is undoubtedly a poor benchmark in which to weigh up a respective politician’s popularity, but, in the age of political apathy, the scenes of Hyde Park was still remarkable; a public show of affectation towards a member of a profession that are so routinely and widely disliked, often purely on principle rather than any actual coherent argument. Even more so considering most public representatives go about their jobs unknown and unheard of – a nobody.
It was quite simply a vision depiction of the power of Boris – or, ‘the cult of Boris’ in the words of Megan Sherman’s great Soton Tab piece on the Tory toff. The ability to turn everyday apolitical citizens into the ‘bread and circuses’ masses willing to such show adulation and exaltation in the ilk of that received by Roman emperors. Boris is the politician for those without any interest in politics – the people’s politician if you will.
Boris is the politician for those without any interest in politics – the people’s politician if you will.
It’s unsurprising; politicians are often considered out-of-touch, detached and unsympathetic careerists with little concern for those that they are meant to represent. Yet, by carefully cultivating a image of a ‘bumbling idiot’, Boris has escaped such a stigma.
Falling down in rivers, getting stuck on zip wires and walking around with hair comparable to a llama’s – by acting like a buffoon, Boris has convinced the British public that is down-to-earth, a normal citizen who is one of them.
It undoubtedly has its merits; the whole British political establishment is seen as a small professional elite running Britain – “Westminster has become the equivalent of a gap year for middle-aged overachievers” – having little to do with the ordinary citizens up and down the country.
Such a stereotype becomes even more magnified when talking about MPs and politicians of the Conservatives Party; portrayed as rich posh-boys, currently willing to embark on a austerity policy ripping the country’s welfare state and services apart in the ‘interests of the country’.
In many ways though, Boris is indeed just the same. He has similar right-wing views, comes from a family of privilege and was a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club along with George Osborne and David Cameron. If thats why politicians are out of touch, BoJo is just the same.
More importantly, however, is his actual record as London Mayor – which does not make pretty reading. Like his Tory party, BoJo has undertaken policies that have been felt most by the poor. Transport is just one of those thing, with bus tickets rising by over 50% and the daily Oyster cap in outer London by 70% in the last two years. He also rejected a Western extension of the congestion charge; a popular decision perhaps, but a foolhardy one considering the policy’s effect in bringing down pollution and traffic.
Even on crime – a Johnsonian policy that the Mayor is keen to claim as a successful – the situation is not as black and white as the mayor claims. In a Daily Telegraph article, Boris claimed that “virtually every single crime type is down” and that it had “fallen a further 13 per cent since I have been mayor.” Lies – in fact, some crime such as robberies, burglaries and knife crime have increased since 2008 and while overall crime is down, the fall has only been around 5%. He also admitted that there were ‘caveats’ – Boris mumbo jumbo for fibs – in his statistics that London youth re-offender rate had been reduced to 19%. Juking the stats.
Indeed, rather than dealing with problems of Londoners, Boris’s time in office has focused instead around publicity showpiece projects, giving the Mayor maximum publicity. One such ventures include the newly-build Emirates Air Line – the £60 million cable car that crosses the Thames in East London – which ended up costing taxpayers over £24 million-plus despite early BoJo promises that it any such budget overspend would not be picked up in such a manner. Even without the overspend, the Air Line is difficult to defend; sold as a much-needed transport link, it is nothing but a tourist attraction – a theme park ride – in the vein of the London Eye, especially considering that essentially the same journey can be done for five minutes on the tube (though without the views).
It could be on course to become the real white elephant of London 2012, with rumours that there are only 16 regular users, that it is losing £50,000 a week and that BoJo has asked for a £8 million bailout from the EU for the project. Overall, the project became the most expensive cable car ever in the world; a giant waste of money which would have had better use as funds for more police or much-needed urban development.
Even ‘Boris Bikes’ have failed in their ultimate aim to give Londoners an accessible and cheap way to travel around the city; mostly they remain used by white professionals aged 25 to 44, with six out of ten subscribers earning more than £50,000 a year. The idea remains a good idea then, but have hardly started a cultural change of cycling in the city; in the words of the Evening Standard, ‘Boris bike users are… like Boris Johnson‘. (It’s a shame though that his office staff fancied using them though, with taxi fares expenses rising 540% under Johnson’s administration, from £729 in 2007/08 to £4,698 in 2008/09)
It’s easy to forget that the London Olympics – in which Boris’s public image and political sway greatly expanded – was not even won by him, with most of the work getting done by his predecessor Livingstone. Lest we forget the London riots, which BoJo spent the first few days ignoring as he lived it up in Canada. The people’s politician; only if it helps his image and has a corporate sponsor.
It is bewildering then why the media has been not sought to question the cult of Boris by looking at his track record, which is less than perfect. Clearly, even journalists seem to have been swayed by his buffoonery, explaining why Eddie Mair’s Paxman-esque interview last Sunday – which persistently question BoJo on his personal history and left him reeling – receiving widespread attention and acclaim.
In reality, Mair’s interview was focusing on the man rather than the politician, but it did throw into play BoJo’s less-than-perfect past. Voters, it seems, don’t care though with a recent YouGov poll indicating that the Conservatives would make up their current 6 point gap deficit if the London Mayor was in charge of the party. Perhaps then Mair did the perfect job, probing the nice guy image of Boris considering it is this that is his political and electoral power.
The big question then is if will Boris end up as PM? Never; for one, he isn’t even currently an MP and the chances of the Tory backbenchers and supporters advocating the current Mayor as leader of the party seems remote.
He is, however, something more dangerous: the start of a growing movement of politicians – begun in Britain by no-other than Blair, but reaching a new level under Johnson – who care more about the outer image than actual policies; deep down, he is just another Westminister politician, failing his duty. BoJo is ‘brand politics’
And in the era of apathy, that is an ominous sign.