The Magazine

They Backed Boris

On the hustings with Boris Johnson, London's unlikely mayor.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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"They want a shot of me with the carcasses," Boris Johnson says, visibly annoyed with the cameramen and reporters surrounding him like a rugby scrum. We're standing in the middle of Smithfield's, a giant meat market in northwest London. One of the photographers asks the husky Johnson to punch the hanging beef "like Rocky." He won't do that, but as a compromise, he dons a white smock like the cockney-accented butchers who cheer him as he walks by, grips a carcass, and smiles for the cameras.

The tension between Boris Johnson the man who must restrain himself to meet expectations of what constitutes a "serious" political leader, and Boris Johnson the man who has a witty take on the world and can't help himself from sharing it with others, is visible this rainy morning. When a television producer asks if she can attach a lapel mic to his suit for the duration of his tour, he pointedly brushes her hand away with a "No thanks." Yet minutes later, he gets laughs from the supervisor showing him around the facility when he remarks aloud, "I've never seen so much tripe in my life, other than in the Livingstone press office," a reference to his opponent, the incumbent London mayor Ken Livingstone. The night before, visiting an East London mosque, he made light of the Livingstone administration's token contribution to the European Space Agency. Borrowing a line from Mike Huckabee, Johnson said that the only justification for such funding would be to send Livingstone into the cosmos.

Boris Johnson is one of the most recognizable figures in British politics, second perhaps only to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. A recent poll conducted for the Conservatives found that, aside from the party's current leadership, the two figures most commonly associated with the Tories are Margaret Thatcher and Johnson. His "shock" of blond hair is but the most superficial reason for his celebrity. A professional journalist, he first entered the British public consciousness a decade ago as a regular panelist on the television quiz show Have I Got News for You? Johnson went into Parliament as a conservative in 2001--though he decided to relinquish his seat after winning the mayoralty on May 1. The enduring image of Johnson, an avid cyclist, involves him sloppily dressed in a suit, riding a bike with one hand on the handlebar with the other pressing a cellphone to his ear.

He is a man known more for his sense of humor--and propensity to commit the sort of gaffes that would have ruined even the most resilient of American politicians--than for any legislation or policies he has proposed (his contention that accusations of his carrying on an interoffice affair while editor of the Spectator magazine were an "inverted pyramid of piffle" has achieved "I did not sleep with that woman" status in the British political lexicon). A week with him on the campaign trail made it evident how he was--in the words of one bystander in posh Kensington--"cheering up London."

Though he's given up journalism for politics, Johnson will always have the writer's desire to narrate what he sees in the world around him. He has an internal monologue that can't be shut off. Out campaigning one afternoon, a red doubledecker bus passes by. "Wave to the bus, Boris!" one of his supporters said. He waves and smiles. And then in a voice just faintly above a whisper, that only I can hear standing right next to him, he mutters, "London commuters. Doleful. Angry."

On the trail, Johnson was a bursting ball of energy, so exuberant that he doesn't pay attention to where he is going, evidenced by his campaign aides telling him, at least half a dozen times in the course of a half hour on the streets of Kensington, to slow down or that he was going in the wrong direction. "Forward, forward, forward!" belts Johnson as he marched down the main drag. Everything with Boris is larger than life. He promises to build "loads of housing." Is he qualified to be mayor? "Supremely." When a smiling passerby clasps his hand and tells him "it's a pleasure to have a candidate with personality!" he responds, "We have gobs of that!"

One of the complaints that many fans of Boris made during the electoral campaign was that the "old Boris"--the one who made jokes, was a bit of a rogue, and got himself into trouble with authority--had disappeared. "I hope you get your sense of humor back," one supporter told him on the trail. "There is no distinction between the old Boris and the new Boris," he said, with the passion of a statesman, in response to a journalist asking where the "old Boris" had wandered. "They are indivisible, co-eternal, consubstantial." If he wasn't being funny enough on that particular morning, it's because "You're talking to me before I've had a cup of coffee."