Nick Cohen wrote an astute piece in the Observer on the weekend about the vacuousness of Boris Johnson’s politics. He points out Boris’ lack of ideological coherence and tendency to say different things to different people. He gave two specific examples from before he became Mayor of London.
First of all:
He ran for the presidency of the Oxford Union in the mid-1980s as the right-wing candidate. He lost. To make matters worse, he lost to a state school boy called Neil Sherlock, who mocked the old Etonian’s sense of entitlement to great effect at the hustings.
The next year, he tried again and won, but he was no longer a Tory but an opponent of the extremism of Margaret Thatcher’s government. His metamorphosis amazed Sherlock.
When Johnson worked as the Brussels correspondent of theDaily Telegraph in the 1990s, his admittedly brilliant – if not always accurate – attacks on the EU from the right inspired the founders of Ukip. Yet when he entered Parliament in 2001, Chris Cook, an aide to David Willetts, reported: “He was clearly not on the right wing, but actually quite europhile in Tory terms. He liked to gossip and bitch about the right-wingers he thought had screwed up the party.”
Since then, he has continued to cast himself in different ways. Since the formation of the coalition, this has often been against Cameron and his government. This is either from the left, as a true progressive, modern Tory of the type Cameron pretended he was, who was suspicious of the housing benefit cap and supports gay marriage (despite once considering it similar to bestiality). Or it is from the right, supported by the Tory rebels as a traditional Conservative who writes in the telegraph criticising the BBC and is eurosceptic. When appealing to a London electorate it is easy for him to attack the housing benefit cap, defend the City and say that it should be easier to build things in rural areas, yet would he do this if he were running in a marginal seat in the country?
When running and being mayor, he can get away with a lack of substance: he does not have control of polemical policies on immigration, welfare, relations with the EU and so on. If he were to run for Prime Minister, although he would start from a popular position (and presumably have support from the Sun) it is hard to see how, especially if he were elected, he could continue to align himself to such a broad area of the political spectrum.
What is surprising is that the Tory right has not seen through the transparent mayor. While he is an ineffective centralist, he is hardly more believable as a die-hard Thatcherite. Boris is simply a populist, with more character than substance. Cameron may sometimes show a lack of ideological conviction with his endless U-turns and botched modernisation project, but he is far less slippery than his old school friend.