Is Boris worrying about his Downing Street timetable?

10:09 pm - April 23rd 2009

by Sunder Katwala    

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Did Boris Johnson today make one of the first moves, however prematurely, to prepare for the next Conservative Party leadership contest?

His Evening Standard interview takes care to position himself against the party leadership and with the party’s right-wing activist base on the hot button issue of the 50p top rate, and acknowledges that he may choose to only run one term as Mayor.

For the record, I don’t believe that will happen. I expect Boris to run in 2012. I just can not see him walking away from the chance to have a central role in the London Olympics for one thing. And his party will be desperate for him to run again. A rookie Tory candidate would face a tougher job holding on to City Hall. Seeming to put personal interest before party might not serve him well, whatever other calculations may be in play.

But this is not the first time the idea has been mooted that Johnson might prefer to be in a Cameron Cabinet than in City Hall. And it is very interesting that he is prepared to think out loud about his options in public. One plausible explanation is that he is thinking ahead about his possible route to Downing Street – and worrying about whether the Mayoral timetable is going to make it too hard to catch the connection he needs.

One possible reason not to run could be the risk of defeat. Labour will mount a strong challenge to retake the Mayoralty in 2012, which could be an important test of the party’s ability to do politics differently if it is to connect again with broader progressive London opinion, across all parties and none.

Losing would appear a crushing blow to his future political plans. But, even if that happened, it would not be a surprise to discover that Boris has Clinton-like attributes of bouncebackability. (Being sacked from his first journalism job for making up quotes proved no barrier to becoming not just a star columnist but Spectator editor).

I think that what may be worrying Boris more are the possible consequences of a 2012 victory for his future career plans.

We could once again see today on St George’s Day how much he revels in the public profile that the role gives him. But he rather struggles to convey the impression that the appeal is in running London itself.

Still, whatever the faults of his administration may be by then, Johnson must start a strong favourite in the 2012 Mayoral race with the bookmakers. He would be the incumbent and would have name recognition and a profile beyond that which most Mayors seeking re-election could hope for. And the way in which his opponents underestimated him in 2008 was not just a campaign mistake but has also meant that the threshold of competence in office has been set much lower for Johnson than it would have been for many other Mayors. His personal charisma and media fluency have been useful assets in evading as much scrutiny on his record as most Mayors would expect.

If he ran and won in 2012, he would be Mayor until 2016. There will have been another General Election, probably in 2014 or 2015. Perhaps that might trigger a leadership contest itself; perhaps there would be one a couple of years later. But Johnson will be biting his nails and hoping for a by-election to pop up somewhere handy to even get back in the House of Commons before 2019 or 2020.

Boris would be 56, so he may fear that the leadership torch might then have passed to another generation.

He would probably be the party’s best known public figure apart from their leader, and the hero of the party’s activists and students in particular. But that would be no good if he doesn’t have a seat in Parliament. Nor would City Hall prove the best base from which to cultivate the relationships with backbenchers who do the ‘elimination rounds’ of a Tory leadership contest before the members decide a run-off.

Boris is likely to have an ebuillient confidence that he would win the party leadership if ever he was one of two candidates on that members’ ballot paper. His focus will be on how to get enough of the Parliamentary Party to put him there.

So Boris’ musings today can be added to a number of earlier clues that what Boris wants is to be Tory party leader and Prime Minister.

A key part of the ‘Boris’ persona has always been to appear as if he would be the last person to have mapped out his ambitions on an envelope, as he suggests in the Standard today:

In the immortal words of Michael Heseltine I cannot foresee the circumstances in which I would be called upon to serve in that office. If like Cincinatus. I were to be called from my plough, then obviously it would be wrong of me not to help out. But the truth is I have a massive, massive job, an intellectual emotional challenge that I am hugely enjoying. I do not spend any time scribbling on the back of envelopes working out how I could be Prime Minister because it is not on my agenda, it really isn’t.”

But many have long believed that it is all there in his head. Boris is doing nothing to dissuade that, instead modestly but knowingly stoking the speculation, particularly in his willingness to challenge the party leadership on national non-London issues like tax.

Charles Moore, who has good reason to know, gave a very interesting Westminster Hour interview on the eve of the Mayoral contest, describing the scale and nature of Johnson’s ambition:

he has a real will to do it and, goodness, Boris has a will. He is a very, very ambitious person and I’m sure that he wants to prove that you can be this extraordinary person, and you can be this sort of pretend fool, you can do everything your way and you can end up, I think, being prime minister. That’s what he most of all wants, though mayor will certainly do for the time being. And so he’s always trying to prove something. The idea that Boris, because he’s amusing and charming, that he’s relaxed and doesn’t care is utter rubbish. He cares tremendously and he’s got the most driving egotism and ambition and some sort of rather amazing fancy about this country and what it is and what he can do for it.

Indeed, today’s interview suggests that he might just be thinking more about it than seems entirely decent.

Perhaps we might all expect more tension between the Tory leadership and City Hall.

The Tory Mods have always worried about the risks that Boris could pose to project Dave.

Might we now also see an increasing unwillingness to let the Cameron agenda override the longer-term ambitions of project Boris?

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

“Losing would appear a crushing blow to his future political plans. But, even if that happened, it would not be a surprise to discover that Boris has Clinton-like attributes of bouncebackability. (Being sacked from his first journalism job for making up quotes proved no barrier to becoming not just a star columnist but Spectator editor).”

Wow! They used to sack journalists for making up quotes?! Amazing…

“Wow! They used to sack journalists for making up quotes?! Amazing…”

Boris made up statistics during the election. We still voted him in.

3. Alisdair Cameron

Hmm. Thing is, it’s damn near impossible to successfully paint Boris as an uber-right-wing bogey-man: it won’t wash with the electorate, who kinda like him, even some of those who abhor his policies (which to date in London haven’t been the disaster predicted by some) and who didn’t vote for him. There are Tories who are ‘horror’ figures (and actually q. a few New lab such figures), but Johnson’s not one of them: despite appearances he’s shrewd and in some social terms rather liberal, backing the living wage, and this week being the subject of much praise from Julie Bindel. If you want to oppose him, better tactics than painting him as a repressive ultra-conservative will be needed.

4. Alisdair Cameron

Sorry, should have made clear in 3, that depicting Johnson as a bogey-man was a tactic of Ken Livingstone.It didn’t work out did it, and combined with the strong suspicion of cronyism, sharp practice and plain fatigue/disillusionment with anything even nominally Labour, led to Boris’ victory.

Shorter Sunder: “never mind about Brown’s mess, have another laugh at Boris.”


We have and will continue to write lots about the economy and the budget on Next Left. There is a good deal of interest in London politics on LC. The Standard billed this as a major story yesterday, so I thought others here might have views about what Johnson’s strategy is.

He is, I think, perfectly serious about his ambitions. I advise against our misunderestimating him

7. Mike Killingworth

If the next Tory leadership contest comes down to Boris versus that EuroMP Fox News has the hots for, I think I know which one Conspirators would want to win.

Sunder – you are always unfailingly courteous even to trollish comments, such as mine!

“If you want to oppose him, better tactics than painting him as a repressive ultra-conservative will be needed.”

Sadly, this is true. Even though he *is* a repressive ultra-conservative.

And let’s not forget, a member of the Bullingdon Club. It’s worth remembering exactly what the means, and what it tells you about a person.

What does that mean *exactly*?

And on what evidence do you consider him”repressive”?

cjcjc – Thank you. On occasion, one even finds trollish commenters being courteous to Fabians!

Sunder, you tosser, I fail to see the point of this rambling article. “I believe Boris is an ambitious politician” would have been sufficient, and I wouldn’t have wasted 2mins of my life reading it. You’d have thought Labour campaigners would have more important issues to discuss.

Its an indication of the obsessive fixation on the Tories held by far too many of the Left. Its this fixation that convinced them to support Blair and the careerist hypocrites over principles, which could possibly finish the Labour Party.

13. Sunder Katwala

chavscum, many thanks. Sorry you’ll never get those 2 minutes back. I write rather more about the Labour Party overall, but I realise this isn’t a Labour party forum (

It is Interesting how seriously the Tory party seems to be taking what is currently just a rumour this – with Shaun Bailey openly discussing that he would like to stand as their candidate – and the Standard reporting in detail on reactions.

Of course, we all know Boris is ambitious. But it will have a major impact on London politics were he to decide he was too ambitious to risk spending four more years as Mayor, which is what is being suggested here. My own view is that he can’t do that: it would look more ambitious than he wants to appear, he will want to use the Olympics to make himself much more famous.

I think he wants to be the British Ronald Reagan.

Might he also be worried that if he messes up the Olympics (especially with all the protests associated with it), that’s it for his career? He doesn’t exactly have a good track record (excuse the pun) on detail, or crisis management.

When Johnson came out to talk about the tax just hours after the Budget, I thought he’d jumped head-first into the political trap Labour had set.
Some in-fighting between Cameron and Johnson would suit Labour down to the ground just at the moment, but he seems clever enough to realise that

Yesterday’s walkabout and jingoistic speech at Leadenhall Market, ostensibly in celebration of St George, was (like the Hillingdon “People’s Question Time”) nothing more than another Tory rally. Conservative Future had stage-managed a crowd of supposed-well-wishers who were instructed to cheer as Boris alighted from his Routemaster. And who appears on the front page of their website, urging Tory embryos to join, is it the leader of the party? Er…it’s Boris.

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