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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The test for Johnson will be whether he is able to balance his sense of humor and relish for cracking jokes with the responsibilities of governing. For all of his faults, Livingstone did lead the city admirably in response to the July 7, 2005, subway bombings, and some wonder whether anyone would take Johnson seriously in the event of another attack. Johnson's passion for saying and writing what he thinks--a true journalistic zeal--may prove nettlesome while governing a diverse city of 7 million people, in an age when every "community" easily takes offense at unintended slights. One thing is certain: Johnson has the country's rapt attention as he tries to cement his managerial bona fides.

The London mayoral race brought a taste of American-style politics to the mother country. In the U.K., members of Parliament run in constituencies like American congressional districts. But except in the most extraordinary of cases (for instance, when an MP is involved in the sort of scandal on which a challenger can mount a recall campaign), Britons choose their MP based on party preference as they know that their local vote will ultimately determine which party forms the next government and thus, a vote for an MP is akin to a vote for a prime minister. Rather than a verdict on a candidate's individual positions, merits, and faults, parliamentary elections are referendums on overall party performance.

The mayoral election presented British voters with an opportunity to vote for an individual rather than a party. Emblematic of this was the introduction into English political discourse of that time-old, American political calculus of asking the electorate which candidate they'd rather have a beer with. The London Times polled focus groups to imagine the candidates at a pub. Voters "imagined [Livingstone] in a suit, ordering a beer and not talking to anyone." Johnson, however, "would be colourfully dressed, order a gin and tonic and talk freely to all." This anecdote is demonstrative, in its small way, of Johnson's ability to cut across the class lines that have traditionally divided British politics. "Where Ken stands for fragmented grievance," Spectator editor Matthew d'Ancona wrote in an endorsement of his former boss, "Boris stands for shared aspiration."

So an election uniquely tailored to highlight candidates' personalities could not have had two more eccentric individuals participating. (That Livingstone and Johnson are both estranged from their national parties--thanks to their various and sundry extracurricular activities--further added to the sense that this was a personality contest.) David Aaronovitch, a columnist for the Times of London, told me that the mayoral election was a contest between "updated, modified stereotypes" of modern British political personalities. If Boris is the classic upper-class character out of P. G. Wodehouse, then Ken Livingstone is the caricature of an aging Marxist revolutionary. A common observation made by journalists covering the race was that this was the first time in British politics that the candidates were known merely by their first names: "The Boris and Ken Show." Indeed, Livingstone's team grew so frustrated with Johnson's popular appeal that any staffer who referred to him as "Boris" was fined £5.

Viewed as a battle of titanic personalities, the London election harked back over 40 years to an American mayoral race. In 1965, conservative intellectual, bon vivant, and all around polymath William F. Buckley Jr. ran for mayor of New York City against the machine Democrat Abe Beame and the handsome, smoothtalking Rockefeller Republican John Lindsay. Like Buckley, Johnson was painted as a Neanderthal by his opponents, yet brought considerable intellect and wit to the campaign trail. Both men introduced a welcome air of levity to the normally staid world of politics. Yet while Buckley did not come even close to winning the mayor's race, Johnson emerged victorious. Even he seemed like he couldn't actually believe what was happening. "He may only have realized the extent of the job after he accepted the nomination," a prominent Tory told me. Watching Johnson make his acceptance speech, I half-expected him to demand a recount.