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Sunday 12 August 2012

Boris, Cameron, and the green-eyed monster

The British PM must be seething inside over the outpouring of affection for London's mayor, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

A friend and I recently tried to imagine how David Cameron feels about Boris Johnson. We thought his stream-of-consciousness goes something like this: "How unfair is this -- 60,000 at an eve-of-Olympics rock concert in Hyde Park and who are they shouting for?

Bloody Boris. Dammit, he's also an Old Etonian who was in the blasted Bullingdon Club wearing tails and throwing things around. So why am I posh and out of touch and he's the people's Boris?

"For Christ's sake, I'm up at 5.30 working on my red boxes, yet it's implied that I'm a lazy drunk just because I said I chillaxed Sunday lunchtimes with a couple of glasses of wine. But when bloody Boris is photographed sipping champagne, everyone just cries, 'Cheers, Boris'. I'm a notoriously devoted husband and father, while Boris can't keep his trousers on. But no penalties there either of course. 'Ho, ho, ho,' they laugh indulgently. 'That's just Boris.'

"For months I've been crucified for being friendly with a few of Murdoch's minions. But Boris? He floats into the Olympics with the old devil himself and Wendi in tow and smiles at the cameras, and now readers of The Sun are being told that Boris is the sunshine the nation wants. It's just not fair."

Boris once explained that his ambition was to have his cake and eat it. So far he's succeeded. As the prime minister put it last week, after Boris had earned favourable press for being snapped dangling clumsily on a zip wire, he "defies all forms of gravity". No wonder the media are full of intense speculation about him aiming to succeed Cameron as prime minister.

Boris's enemies mutter darkly that he's done some shoddy behind-the-scenes deal with the evil Rupert to help lubricate his passage to the top. But although he's consumed with ambition and is a ruthless operator, I don't think there's anything sinister going on here. "I don't regard him [Murdoch] as quite the satanic influence that some do," he said at the height of the hysteria about phone-hacking, "and if you look at the newspaper industry he did a great deal to set it free."

It's much the same point made by Michael Gove, another unusually candid Tory, who told the Leveson Inquiry unapologetically that Murdoch was "one of the most impressive and significant figures of the last 50 years". Both these smart politicians fear a free press is under threat.

In any case, Boris is by instinct inclusive, which is one of the reasons Londoners voted for him against Ken Livingstone, who believed in dividing and conquering. At the height of anti-banker frenzy, Boris pointed out that London's prosperity depends on a healthy financial sector. He thinks his job requires him to demonstrate the glories of his city to the world, and he will happily rub shoulders with anyone who can help. He's about to embark on a foreign tour to sell London to potential investors, and if Murdoch can assist London, and, incidentally, its mayor, that's fine with Boris.

Asked if he wanted to be prime minister, he replied gaily: "How on earth could you elect that guy? How could anybody elect a prat who gets stuck in a zip wire?" Quizzed on the same subject, Cameron said: "I want Boris to be as ambitious as possible. He is a fantastic London mayor."

The silly season, is as usual, being silly. Cameron is safe in his job until the 2015 election. What happens after that depends on the electorate. Boris has insisted he won't seek a seat while he's still mayor, but knowing how easily he tells lies when it suits him, I'll be surprised if he doesn't do a U-turn and find a safe seat towards the end of his mayoralty.

Might he become prime minister? He has intelligence and charm in abundance, along with a sense of history which is an enormous advantage in that job. But the obstacles in his way would daunt an Olympian. He will have to be seen as a conspicuous success as mayor. He'll have to shine in the House of Commons in a way he didn't as an MP and show he can work as a team player. More importantly, he'll have to prove he can play Blackpool and Cardiff and Bridlington. Will the Tory heartlands forgive infidelities and a love child? Will the average punter think he has the depth and gravitas to represent his country abroad and the judgement to make good decisions in a mad world?

Boris has his work cut out. Cameron is going off on his holidays probably still grumbling about unfairness, but he won't be losing any sleep over the Mayor of London.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards