Today sees the latest instalment in Boris Johnson’s flirtation with the press over a possible return to Parliament. Here’s an extract of his conversation with Isabel Oakeshott in the Sunday Times:
Johnson wants strikes to be illegal without a turnout of at least 50%. Yet he has no power to push through such legislation. Nor does the prime minister, because the Liberal Democrats will not back it.
“Unfortunately we have a coalition which does not have the requisite cojones to do it,” Johnson says bluntly. “We need a Tory majority.”
He says he has pressed Cameron “many times” on the issue. “The answer is that they’re going to look at it after the next blooming election,” he says gloomily.
He would be in a better position to do something about it himself if he were back at Westminster. “Well, if I could get bloody union laws through, that would be a good reason for doing it,” he agrees.
Pressed on whether he might stand as an MP in 2015, he refuses to rule it out, becoming coquettish and pretending he cannot remember what his official answer is to such questions. “Ha ha ha. I haven’t actually given the matter a second’s thought,” he says eventually, deliberately sounding unconvincing.
That deliberately unconvincing tone serves his short-term purposes, namely avoiding an explicit statement of intent while still piquing interest enough to get it reported, but it is as practically useful as “mañana, mañana”.
The Mayor knows that everyone assumes he will one day return, and that plenty of people will read Prime Ministerial ambitions into his eventual decision to do so. The danger for the Conservative Party is that by teasing in this way he simply increases the hype, thus raising the chance that his announcement (when it comes) could destabilise what must be a tight, disciplined campaign to win the next election.
His harshest critics may argue that he is only self-interested, and the Conservative Party is a victim about which he might not be that bothered, but if he is seen to damage the chances of defeating Miliband then it would be severely damaging to his own reputation, too.
It’s true, as Oakeshott notes, that to return before 2016 would require a plausible excuse for breaking his pledge not to be Mayor and an MP at the same time. However, there are plenty of justifications which would prove acceptable. Maybe he will make a case that to fight irresponsible strikes which harm London so much he must be in the Commons, as he hints today. Alternatively, a case could be made that his promise to oppose Heathrow expansion is more important to Londoners than his promise not to become an MP again, and that he can best fulfil the former by forgetting the latter pledge.
Whatever reason he eventually chooses, and whenever he intends to return to the green benches, this flirtation does no wider cause any good. It would be better for his successor as Mayoral candidate, better for the Government and better for the Conservative Party’s internal unity if he was to stop fluttering his eyelashes and state his intentions.