Boris Johnson almost looked nervous. There was no trace of bumptiousness about him as he waited yesterday morning to take questions from an audience of over 500 people in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the constituency he hopes will return him to the House of Commons.
It did not matter that none of these people had a vote. Nor did it matter that most of them were not even born in 2008, when he became Mayor of London. The children of Colham Manor Primary School had his undivided attention. I was, incidentally, the only journalist who witnessed this grilling, which included some inquiries at least as tough as Andrew Neil would have posed.
But the Mayor began by asking them a question: “Does anybody know know why I’m late?” Hands shot up. This was not one of those school events where no one dared address the visiting dignitary. It was soon established that he had got stuck in the traffic, and had indeed became so frustrated that “the steering wheel was almost bent into a pretzel”.
“Whose fault is the traffic?” Johnson went on. Various possibilities were canvassed: the traffic lights could be a factor, as could the lollipop lady.
“Me,” Johnson said, and the way he said it provoked laughter. “The traffic is entirely my fault.” Here was a strange politician: one prepared to admit blame.
But let us not exaggerate that aspect of his character, for his next question implied there were deeper causes at work: “Why do you think the traffic is so bad in London?”
The answer, it turned out, is that the population of London has grown by 600,000 since he became Mayor: “Last year there were more babies than in any year since England won the World Cup.” So there is more traffic, meaning more pollution, meaning we need cleaner vehicles. And what might those be?
“A Porsche,” a small boy said. For a moment, I thought Johnson would agree. But with statesmanlike restraint, he extolled the merits of bicycles, which he said are “good for the soul”.
“Do you have a golden toilet?” No one had expected this. The six words suggested with admirable brevity the possibility that Johnson is a corrupt and greedy despot who leads a life of impudent luxury.
“The answer to that is certainly not,” Johnson said. “It would be a total waste of money.” He added that under him, there was not only no golden toilet, but the council tax had been cut.
“Who wants to be Mayor?” Johnson asked, and about 250 hands went up. “It’s a wonderful job,” he agreed, because “London is the greatest city on earth.”
“Why are general elections held on Thursdays?” a pupil asked.
Johnson said it was so you could get the results on Fridays, and then had the weekend to sort things out and “send in the removals vans” if needed, not that they would be on this occasion.
We moved to a classroom, where each member of the class had a question: “Have you ever thought about running for Prime Minister?”
“I’ve thought about David Cameron being Prime Minister again,” Johnson said.
“How many friends do you have?” someone asked.
“That’s a very good question,” Johnson replied. “Enough.” He wondered how many serious friends it was possible to have in politics: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” But he went on: “I’ve got enough friends, and some very good friends too.”
“Did you want to be a politician when you were small?”
Johnson responded by describing why he found his first career, as a journalist, unsatisfactory: “Being in journalism, you’re always being cruel to people, even by mistake. People got so upset.”
It occurs to me that one reason why Johnson is so good on the stump is that he does not want people to be upset. If someone comes up to him who is worried or distressed about something, then while he is talking to them, he too is worried or distressed. Instead of trying to keep their trouble at a distance, he enters into it and tries to alleviate it.
Good manners can be used, in England, to keep people at a distance. Johnson has the kind of good manners which entail listening to what they have to say, and imagining what it must be like to be them. He is in one respect the rudest men I have ever met: I have never known anyone so consistently late for appointments. At Colham Manor Primary School, he was an hour late, though his staff had phoned ahead to warn he was held up. The children were not brought, beautifully behaved and a credit to their teachers, into the hall where they were to meet him, until he was actually there.
As soon as Johnson arrived, he made up for his rudeness not just by being amusing (in itself a highly welcome characteristic), but by being attentive. When at last he performed, he was determined to connect with his audience.
And so it was when he moved on from the school to talk to members of the public outside Uxbridge Station, served by the Metropolitan and Piccadilly Lines. It was like being at a carnival. What an orgy of smiles, giggles and selfie-taking broke out. Without apparent distinction of age, sex, ethnicity or religion, people wanted to have their photograph taken with Johnson, and about ten professional photographers pursued him too.
Members of the RMT union stopped the love-in becoming too sugary by shouting “The man’s a crook”, and by waving placards which said “Keep Uxbridge Ticket Office Open”. But to balance this, another man stood by Johnson as he was was being filmed by a camera crew and shouted “Boris for Prime Minister. Yeah.”
When I asked this man, who gave his name as Eric from Ealing, why he wanted Johnson to be PM, he replied: “He’s got charisma. He’s the one we need. Full of blood, full of charm, says what he thinks.” It turned out that Eric “won’t be voting for anyone” this time, for he has yet to get over supporting the Liberal Democrats in 2010: “They really disappointed me.”
A sweet old man invited Johnson to condemn embryo research, “because when we have an embryo we have a life”. Johnson replied that he doesn’t “take a maximalist position on this”. He is a moderate, who thinks that the sufferings of severely ill people should be taken into account, for their pain might be relieved by such research.
Several people at the back of the crowd began spontaneously to discuss whether Johnson would make a good Prime Minister. “The Opposition seem to lack gravitas,” an elderly gentleman said. “I think he’d be quite good on the international stage.”
A man upset by the closure of a local day centre for people with learning difficulties spoke at some length to Johnson, who passed on the complaint to Ian Edwards, a local Conservative councillor, who assured the man: “We’ll take that up for you.”
In 2010, Sir John Randall retained Uxbridge and South Ruislip for the Conservatives by 11,216 votes, so it would be extraordinary if Johnson were to lose it. But even before his return to Westminster, voters in this stretch of outer London, a few miles north of Heathrow, are asking whether or not he can become Prime Minister.