As Boris Johnson charmingly and ruthlessly exploits the Olympics to build and extend his profile, he is beginning to remind me of another blonde charismatic Tory, namely Michael Heseltine.
The more Boris protests that he is not seeking to undermine David Cameron, the more I am reminded of Hezza’s pitch when he was but publicly wasn’t out to get Mrs Thatcher.
Boris lacks Hezza’s policy reach and depth, but he is currently more than compensating by building, in this anti-politics age, a sense that he is not really a politician. He is banking on the possibility that whoever once said that ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ was right, and that he will rise to the top in the manner of a reality TV star who is liked in a way that others are hated, and is last man standing.
But to anyone tempted to buy the ‘anti politics politician’ line, be aware that what you are witnessing is a calculating display of raw politics at the expense of a currently rather vulnerable leader. As Mayor of London, he is expected to be round and about the place for the Games. But – his zip wire photo op today the latest example – he is going way beyond those expectations, and doing so in a way that he knows will allow the contrast between him and Cameron (not to mention George Osborne and Michael Gove) to be commented on more and more. By the time he hands over the Olympic flag to the Mayor of Rio at the end of the Games, he hopes to have secured, with the backing of a considerable number of media cheerleaders, two main objectives – table-topping popularity ratings at home, and a growing profile overseas.
He has shown the same ruthlessness in letting Cameron and Osborne take the political heat on bankers, and then defending the bankers as a way of getting business behind him; and in refusing to join the media bashing that has accompanied the Leveson Inquiry. Rupert Murdoch may be PNG with Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, and as a result Johnson, along with Alex Salmond, spots an opportunity. But I think even Big Eck would baulk at inviting Rupe along to an Olympic final. Johnson thinks he can get away with it. More, he knows just how far up Cameron’s nose it will get.
Walking in London recently, I bumped into someone I have known for years, who is now a committed Johnson supporter. I was frankly taken aback by the hatred for Cameron and Osborne being expressed. If Johnson was a real team player, he might be thinking about how to use his unusual appeal to help the Tory Party as a whole. But he is not, and so he is not. He is using it to promote himself at the expense of Cameron, and at the expense of anyone else who thinks they might be next leader of the Tory Party.
I have known Boris for a long time. I confess that I never took him very seriously, and I still think there is a fundamental problem with him that makes it highly unlikely he could ever lead his party, or be considered Prime Ministerial material. But he is defying gravity, and Cameron knows it. The PM has a fairly long list of problems. Boris Johnson is without doubt one of them.
Meanwhile, I reflect on how much Boris owes Tony Blair – without him, there would have been no London Mayor position, no Olympics to exploit and possibly, no Ken Livingstone as candidate last time.