The surest way of showing you don’t really understand modern politics is to call Boris a buffoon. Not only does the word, with its overtones of stupidity, profoundly misjudge the man, it misjudges the electorate. There is nothing clownish about Boris: clowns are never winners. Yes, Boris is highly amusing, using his wit subtly to deflect attack and win arguments; and while he can put on an effective comedy routine, every move he makes is purposeful and takes him closer to his goal.
You don’t win London by luck. And you don’t win London, at the very moment when 50% of its electorate are saying they would vote Labour at the next general election, just because you are likeable and funny. Look at the polling: the majority credit him not just with charisma, but with doing a good job – even a significant fraction of Labour voters approved of how he handled his first term as Mayor.
It took Boris a little while to settle into his municipal role. I was one of those who complained after his first year that he had achieved too little. But the mayorality doesn’t have much real power, and what little it does have, Boris has gone on to use well. It took him a while to get a grip of the machine – the significant thing is, he does now control it. In a word, he has shown competence. The supreme virtue of the modern political leader is this elusive thing, competence – getting things done in spite of bureaucracy and the wrap-around attention of the media. Forget the politics of gesture and positioning: in this post-ideological world, competence is the message.
The way a leader achieves competence is not by personal micro-management but by his choice of lieutenants and the use he makes of them. Boris made some early mistakes but he took Simon Milton as his Chief of Staff, then after his sad death he brought in Eddie Lister – both of them men with enormous experience of successfully running a flagship local authority. With these and other strong team-players, Boris has led an administration that kept costs low, spirits high, and shepherded through a string of small but significant achievements. And of course Boris chose Lynton Crosby as his campaign manager.
Boris is a very different person from the way he is generally taken; it’s an ironic phenomenon: so often our most ‘authentic’ politicians are those with the biggest gap between their public persona and their private natures. Boris is not bumbling but highly calculating, with a strong strategic sense behind all his moves; and he's focused and bold in pursuit of his clear ambition. Don’t forget, going for Mayor was high-risk – not many believed he could succeed. But it was an essential move for him. And his mind has genuine curiosity and originality, capable of surprises. When I last had lunch with him, he was preparing to learn Arabic.
It has been suggested that Boris won London because he is a true Conservative. That doesn’t ring true. The important point is subtly different, and cannot be lightly dismissed: he showed that being a confident Conservative and winning a majority need not in any way be contradictory, even in a skeptical, sophisticated city like London. That is an important learning for a party that has been uncomfortable with itself for twenty years.
Will he ever be Prime Minister? The timing looks tricky for him, but I believe it may yet suit him perfectly. There is no hurry, and Boris is not the type to challenge David Cameron. In spite of occasional verbal barbs, Boris must know that he will do better to wait until there is a natural vacancy, years away. The Mayor and the Prime Minister are likely to play it wisely and benefit rather than hurt each other. In the meantime, Boris will do more and more to demonstrate his fitness for the highest office by increasingly focusing on London’s economy.