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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Electioneering for the London mayoralty was humbling. When he was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and editor of the Spectator, Johnson opined on such grave issues as the Iraq war and the case for impeaching Tony Blair. Campaigning on the minutiae of municipal government wasn't easy for a man who used to write a luxury motoring column for British GQ and produced a two-part series on the Roman empire for the BBC. Debates on the hustings were dominated by arguments over the merits of "bendy-buses," which Livingstone introduced in 2001, over an updated version of the beloved Routemaster, the double-decker behemoth with an open-air door and conductor at the back. "I think we should allow cyclists to turn on red," Johnson told one fellow biker during his canvassing in Kensington.

Mundane as the affairs that dominate municipal governance may be, as mayor of London, Johnson will have a significant national--not to mention international--role. Although only in existence since 2000, the office, given the capital city's sheer size in relation to the rest of the country and its role as an international financial capital, is one of the highest profile political positions in Britain. The mayor has a lot of money at his disposal and a bully pulpit (as Livingstone so ably demonstrated during his two terms in office, using it to broadcast his vociferous opposition to the Iraq war and to label President Bush "the greatest threat to life on this planet that we've most probably ever seen"). Provided Johnson performs his duties reasonably well and wins a second term, he may have the chance to make the case for becoming leader of the Tories and a potential prime minister.

Livingstone's campaign strategists knew it would be easier to scare voters away from Johnson if they could portray him not as some shambolic idiot incapable of running a magazine (never mind a city), but as a nefarious right-winger intent on dragging London back 150 years. Steve Norris, a former Tory cabinet minister who ran for mayor in 2000 and 2004, described Livingstone's campaign message thus: "If you don't vote for me you will get Boris Johnson who is a racist fascist who loves Margaret Thatcher who destroyed London." I saw Livingstone describe Johnson as a "genuine 19th-century liberal who believes in the least government possible." At a debate entitled, "Does Ken Deserve a Third Term as Mayor of London?" historian Tristram Hunt attempted to place the mayoral race in transcendent historical context with Livingstone as a progressive in the mold of a Fabian Society intellectual and Johnson playing the part of a laissez-faire Victorian who believes that private charity ought be the only recourse for the poor. Listing all of the wonderful improvements by socialist governments past, Hunt ominously warned, "All this is at risk if Boris wins."

To paint Johnson as a far-right figure, Livingstone staffers dug up a 2002 column he had written for the Telegraph. It would form a key talking point for the duration of the campaign. As Johnson later explained, the column was intended to mock Tony Blair's frequent visits to Africa as "a spoof of a 1950's-style account of a Commonwealth tour," describing for readers the "watermelon smiles" of "tribal warriors" and "flag-waving piccaninnies." The use of such language might have been insensitive, as Johnson readily admitted and apologized for, yet it was hardly the stuff of the whites-only British National party, as Livingstone and his allies in the media attempted to cast it.

Ultimately, the effort by Johnson's critics to portray him as a bumbling clown on the one hand and a nefarious racist on the other collapsed under the weight of its own inherent contradictions. Johnson manifestly isn't a racist and in person seems like he couldn't impersonate one even if he tried. Campaigning throughout London, Johnson frequently reminded audiences that his great-grandfather, a Turkish journalist named Ali Kemal, "knew the Koran off by heart." At a BBC debate, answering a question about his remark several weeks earlier on an Asian-themed talk show that he could "out-ethnic" the presenter, Johnson said, "My own genetic diversity is pretty great and my children resemble a kind of U.N. Peacekeeping force" (Johnson's mother-in-law is Sikh).

The sheer silliness of the "Boris is a racist" argument was crystallized for me on my way to the Tube station in Kensington. Outside stood a young man of South Asian descent wearing a "Back Boris" T-shirt passing out leaflets to passersby while calling out "Boris for mayor!" Just a few feet away, a white man of similar age, dressed to the punk nines, was sitting on a pedestal interrupting him with shouts of: "Boris is a racist!"

"No he's not," the Asian man shot back.

They contradicted each other for a minute, until the Asian man demanded that the white man "Say it to my face." The white man did just that, loudly calling Johnson a "racist" and repeating the familiar charge about "piccaninnies" and "watermelon smiles" with less than a hair's breadth between him and his pro-Boris counterpart. The Asian man replied, "Racism is a very serious issue," accusations of which are "not to be thrown around all willy-nilly."

Johnson fought back with insults of his own. He taunted Livingstone as "Mayor Leavingsoon" and as a man who "emerged from the bowels of the Labor government." The words "sleaze" and "cronies" featured prominently (as did the phrase "Tammany Hall," yet another example of the Americanization of the mayoral race). Unlike Livingstone's charges of racism, however, these accusations, while harsh, were not unfair. In January, a television documentary showed how Livingstone had bestowed high-paying, municipal jobs on a coterie belonging to a far-left splinter group, Socialist Action, with which Livingstone has long been associated. Two months later, a senior aide to Livingstone resigned after accusations arose that he was funneling public monies to sham charities operated by his friends and, in one case, a woman to whom he had sent salacious emails.

In a campaign with many absurd moments, the height must have been when Livingstone was asked about how his original estimate of £4 billion in costs associated with hosting the 2012 Olympics was recently deemed "entirely unrealistic" by a government body. Livingstone confessed that the underestimate was a deliberate attempt to get the British government to invest billions of pounds in the blighted neighborhood of East London, and that, frankly, Livingstone didn't care all that much about "three weeks of sport." "It wasn't a mistake. .  .    . It was exactly how I plotted it to ensnare the government to put money into an area it has neglected for 30 years," he explained. The actual price tag for Britain's hosting the Olympics is expected to surpass £10 billion.

Livingstone looked perpetually tired and worn out on the campaign trail, in contrast to the effervescent Boris, whose eyes bulge out of his head whenever he speaks. The same documentary that detailed the excesses of Livingstone's city hall also showed him drinking whiskey at numerous meetings, sometimes early in the morning. I realized Livingstone had resigned himself to defeat when, at a debate sponsored by the U.K. Evangelical Alliance, I saw him sipping a glass of wine in full view of a BBC cameraman and later carrying it up to the table.

One of the delights of the Johnson victory has been the spectacle of Britain's left-wing mandarins venting their outrage and frustration. The day of the election, the Guardian printed a collection of quotations from Londoners--"some famous, some not"--"imagin[ing] what it would be like if this bigoted, lying, Old Etonian buffoon got his hands on our diverse and liberal capital." The fashion designer Vivienne Westwood stated that a Johnson mayoralty would expose "democracy as a sham." Charlie Brooker, a Guardian columnist, remarked, "I'd sooner vote for a dog than Boris Johnson. Cartoon characters should only run cartoon cities." (A similar observation was expressed to me by a Liberal Democrat, who said, "Boris will turn London into a Roald Dahl novel.") Minutes after the election results were officially announced, one Guardian writer took to the newspaper's website with a bitter lament entitled "Enter the Jester." Meanwhile, more optimistic Londoners wait with bated breath to see if Johnson's 2003 promise that "if you vote for the Conservatives, your wife will get bigger breasts, and your chances of driving a BMW M3 will increase," might, in actual fact, materialize.

Johnson's reputation as a "buffoon" or a "clown"--words often seen in the same sentence as his name--derives as much from his gaffes as it does from the simple fact that politicians, even in the U.K., are by and large an unfunny bunch. A sense of humor is so rare amongst the political class that Johnson's wit is judged to be a liability and a character failure, rather than the refreshing elixir that it actually is. In his biography of Johnson, the Daily Telegraph journalist Andrew Gimson pointed to a column he wrote about a visit with Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi. Johnson observed that Italians "like him not in spite of the gaffes, but because of the gaffes. It is Berlusconi's genius that he has become the only world leader in the great queue of grey-suited line-toers who can be consistently relied on to say something eye-popping." Johnson might as well have been writing about himself.

At the end of the day, perhaps it was sheer force of personality that won the election for Johnson. He has a humility--knocked into him during numerous public shamings--that Livingstone lacks. He's a man who has taken his lumps and knows how to deal with adversity in a more respectful manner than the dirigiste he defeated. Neil Kinnock, a former Labour party leader who wrestled with Livingstone decades ago to prevent the party's being hijacked by the left, famously remarked, "Everybody likes Ken Livingstone except the people who know him."

Although the vast majority of Londoners don't know Livingstone personally, they had the opportunity to learn enough about him over the course of his eight years as mayor. By contrast, Steve Norris told me that, "The only people who don't like Boris are the people who haven't met him." If that's true, then Johnson has ample opportunity to further his national political ambitions during his tenure.

In a country whose preeminence on the world stage has come and gone, Johnson is a ray of forward-looking light, a sunbeam of positivism. There is something distinctly American about his energy, ambition, and, most important, his optimism. A prominent Tory summed up what his advice to Johnson would be in the event that he won. "Boris: It's great that you won on personality. But now you gotta govern on competence."

That's the test Boris Johnson now faces. At the very least, his mayoralty will be a joy to behold.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic.