“Boris Ridiculous to Boris Dangerous”

John Rentoul

bj 225x300 Boris Ridiculous to Boris DangerousBoris Johnson’s likely re-election as mayor of London tomorrow confounds those who thought that the intersection of comedy and politics was a left-wing thing. David Hayes has an excellent article on the mayoral campaign on the Australian Inside Story, which, incidentally, proves that good long-form journalism is not exclusively American. Here is a sample:

So familiar has the act become to the domestic audience that it is easy to forget how comically discordant it once seemed. Boris’s voice (posh baritone), his blond hair (strategically dishevelled), his dress (artfully rumpled), his bicycle (creatively deployed), his humour (a self-parodic melange of Boys’ Own quad-and-toasted-crumpets anachronism, imperial allusion and digressive wordplay) – the combination, when packaged in the figure of a Conservative MP of an unpopular opposition party, seemed out of kilter with the self-consciously thrustful, modernistic aura of the New Labour period.

But this was also a period when comedy was becoming a major cultural industry, and – for a media that also loves contrarians and the facade of difference – when “political satire” was filling the gap left by the end of ideology and the infirmity of political opposition. Boris was funny and clever; he stood out; he charmed; he got into scrapes, but even this seemed part of the Just William–style deal; and perhaps most effective of all, in a media-political culture becoming ever less serious, he reflected back to the audience a fashionable unseriousness, the sense that it – political argument, public life – was at heart all a jolly jape.

Thus, when Boris – then shadow higher education minister – announced his candidacy for mayor of London in July 2007, as his old university rival David Cameron was repositioning the Tories for their long march back to national power, the sideways move had an absurd aspect. Boris Johnson, the cod-gravitas comic turn who conjured a throwback image of born-to-rule monoculturalism, as governor of millions of hard-pressed, working-class, thrillingly diverse Londoners? It had to be another joke.

But the media, and certainly his left-wing opponents (very many, and what material he delivered them!), seem to have got Johnson wrong. Behind the charm offensive and the prolific journalism was always a formidable brain and a cold ambition. When the critics began to catch up in 2007–08, the sound of intellectual gears changing – from Boris ridiculous to Boris dangerous – was thunderous.

Still, they were wrong-footed. The left had loved, embraced and championed comedy’s colonisation of politics – most of it still does – but this was a step too far. The big mistake, it seemed, had been to characterise Johnson as above all a media figure (even if in the modern era every successful politician must be that), and to miss the possibility that the deceptively jocular exterior was also a mask. Could Boris even be more serious than the left? It was a question too fearful and disturbing to ask.

I voted for Boris last time, partly because I hoped that he would take on the Tube drivers’ union, but the decisive factor was a conviction that a third term for Ken would be a licence for cronyism. Boris hasn’t taken on Aslef: in fact its drivers have been bought off to keep them at work during the Olympics. But he hasn’t done anything terribly wrong, and Ken has failed to make the case for why we should have him back.

(Incidentally, I have no interest in Benita Thingy, the most unconvincing “outsider” since George W Bush. She is in favour of a third runway at Heathrow and she is not going to win. People who do not understand the Supplementary Vote system need to know that you have to use one of your votes to vote for Boris or Ken if you want your vote to be capable of influencing the outcome. As there is no candidate for whom I want to cast my first preference symbolically, I shall vote for Boris and not use my second vote.)

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  • JohnJustice

    Would I vote for Ken Livingstone? No way, BS. The man is a disgrace to the Labour Party, should never have been its candidate, and should be expelled in the same way George Galloway was. 

    That does not mean voting for a bad alternative.

    As you say, abstaining is probably the best course of action.

  • richardgreyh

    I will vote for Ken – I trust him far more.  I laugh with Boris but don’t trust him any more than I trust Camoron.

  • mhmediaonline

    In common with many other politicians, Boris has concentrated on short-term, high-profile, shiny projects, while carefully ignoring/forgetting that small herd of elephants on the table.

    Well Boris, if you get in, just remember that Olympics will be over very quickly, but all the nasty stuff will still be there when you get back from what will be probably the biggest, most expensive corporate jolly in British history. We’ll remember, even if you don’t!

  • bandagedice

    I am not voting for Boris or Ken, I am voting for Brian on the reasoning that he is the only candidate who has ever had a proper job.

    I really don’t care who wins, since I live in the rural outer fringe of Greater London & do not consider myself a “Londoner” anyway. I am only bothering to vote since I have to pay for a tube system miles away that I never use & I may as well get something for my money, even if it just a few marks on a piece of paper.

  • BlairSupporter

    I think I’d be abstaining if I had a vote in London right now. Bad show, eh?

  • Brian Corbett

    “Finally, had Ken been mayor at the time of Marc Duggan’s shooting, the riots would have been averted.”

    You should be Mayor of the Entire Human Race, for you are wise and clairvoyant. With you in charge Loughborough Junction will be hallowed ground and trains will run all the time, even on weekends.

  • Paul Keogh

    Most of your columnists are all advocating a vote for Johnson. This will delight new Evening Standard Editor, Sarah Sands, who will soon be calling the shots at the Independent. Sands is making the Standard into a Tory propaganda rag and she will seek to do the same at the Independent and at the i.

    You have been warned. Independent ? Yes. But not for much longer if Sarah Sands and her masters at Conservative Central office have their way. She has already packed the Standard with Tories and runs non-stop negative stories targeting Livingstone, public sector workers and minorities.   

  • Strifey

    It’s not possible to run a positive story on Ken, that’s probably why.

  • awarningtothecurious

    Johnson is a sinister, self seeking buffoon.
    No one outside London with a brain cell could bear a minute in  such a twats company.
    The fiefdom of London he presides over bears more than a passing resemblance to Mogadishu.
    London’s very welcome to him.

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