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Sunday 31 March 2013

The man who would, and could, be king

Boris Johnson's genius for handling bad publicity was to the fore again last week, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'DURING my one-man show, Rock 'n' Roll Politics," wrote Steve Richards, the distinguished political commentator last week, "I reflect briefly on who is likely to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. At one performance in December, I offered to pay each member of the vast audience £10,000 if Boris Johnson were to succeed David Cameron."Richards' argument is that Boris is leader-in-waiting and, in Britain, leaders-in-waiting (like Denis Healey, Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo and David Miliband) almost never become leaders. He's peaked too early, and, what's more, his cupboard is jammed with skeletons.

Some of Boris's familiar skeletons were on display last Sunday morning on the Andrew Marr Show, where Eddie Mair asked harsh questions about various indiscretions and cover-ups that were to be discussed the following night on the BBC in Michael Cockerell's excellent Boris Johnson: the Irresistible Rise. I had read various accounts of the programmes, ranging from "car-crash" to "priceless", and was even more than usual leaning towards the "Surely-he'll-never-make-it" side of the eternal "Could-Boris-really-become-PM?" question.

And then I watched both.

Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise is not just hilarious, it's riveting.

I know Boris, I've followed his career with fascination and incredulity for years, I've read two biographies of him, I'm well-briefed on various of his skeletons, and the profile didn't really have new revelations, but it convinced me that Boris is the exception who seems to prove every rule.

Boris has explained his policy on cake is "having it and eating it" and, boy, has he lived up to that. He's had to scale down his ambitions a bit since – during his fiercely competitive and often chaotic childhood – he decided he'd be world king, but he sees no reason why he shouldn't be-have whatever way he chooses and still get to the top.

One of his masters at Eton pointed out that Boris sees rules as being for other people. David Cameron took that further, ruefully remarking after the sight of Boris dangling ludicrously on a zip-wire sent his popularity soaring, that he "defies all forms of gravity".

Ian Hislop described how 10 years ago the team on Have I Got News For You set out to ambush and destroy Boris and instead found they had made him a star. He's been sacked and reprimanded for dodgy journalistic behaviour, yet became editor of the respectable Spectator, and these days in a couple of hours on a Sunday earns £250,000 for his (brilliant) weekly column for the Daily Telegraph.

He was sacked from the front bench by Conservative leader Michael Howard for lying over an extra-marital affair, but is now the Tories' favourite son and still has the same wife. Far from following the advice of Max Hastings, his old editor, to "lock up his willie" (or his "phallocratic phallus", as Boris once described it), he's been outed as having two subsequent affairs and an illegitimate child, and still got away with it politically and domestically.

Through charm and plenty of practice, Boris has perfected the art of gaining forgiveness for sins that would have destroyed any normal politician or husband. Cameron is damaged by his poshness: Boris makes a joke of it. He's "Bojo", the centre-right, Eurosceptic mayor of a centre-left multicultural city, a toff with a common touch. He pounds the pavement in shorts and ghastly beanies, and women swoon. In an anti-intellectual country he is a celeb who flaunts his classical education and plays with language.

His genius in handling bad publicity was in evidence last week. The Sun headline was 'Bojo: TV mauling was just splendid'. He'd confessed to having been "sucker-punched" in a "car crash interview", we were told, and had said Mair had done a "splendid job" in unleashing what the reporter described as "a string of personal questions that left him floundering" about being sacked by a newspaper, lying to his party and agreeing to give up details of a journalist a pal wanted beaten up. Mr Johnson said: "Fair play to Eddie, he landed a good one. It is the function of BBC journalists to bash up politicians, particularly people like me."

The report ended with: "Yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron said: 'Never attempt to limit Boris's ability to get out of a tight spot'."

Conrad Black rightly summed up Boris as "a sly fox disguised as a teddy bear", but Boris is a bear sprinkled with stardust. On Thursday, the London Evening Standard published a poll showing that now 38 per cent of voters favoured him as Tory leader with 33 per cent for Cameron. If there were an election now, they would vote 37 per cent Labour, 31 per cent Conservative. With Boris as leader, it would be 37 per cent for Boris and 37 per cent for a Miliband-led Labour Party.

Steve Richards may be facing bankruptcy.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards