By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
As the Olympics prepare to begin, and as Fleet Street shifts instantaneously from uniform criticism to uniform praise, let's pause for a moment and consider Boris Johnson, London's Mayor, in the light both of his history to date and his speech yesterday at the Olympic clock countdown (if "speech" is the right word for what might better be described as a brief rant).
On one level, this is a man who was sacked by the Times for inventing a quote, dismissed by Michael Howard from the Conservative front bench after not telling the truth about his private life, kept at arms' length by David Cameron and only taken up by the Cameron/Osborne duopoly as the Tory Mayoral candidate after other candidates had turned them down. In short, he was disparaged by the political establishment as a clown even after he left full-time journalism and entered Parliament.
But just look at him above, cheered maniacally by a seething crowd. No other politician in Britain would have won anything close to such a reception; many of them would have booed offstage. I have written before about Boris on this site at length, but his appeal can be summed up in five words: authenticity, and zest for life. The authenticity is unusual, but not unique: Anne Widdecombe, John Prescott and Nadine Dorries have it. What is unique to him is that particular zest for life – his aversion to pessimism in all its forms.
The deep-rooted causes of it have provided endless copy for commentators, psychologists and biographers – I've also compared Boris to Churchill, and he has more than a touch of the latter's "Black Dog" – but it is real and unquenchable and has appeal to the non-voting classes. I'm not saying that this is illimitable (it would be interesting to see how he polls with voters outside the south-east, and with women voters in general) or that he will be party leader or Prime Minister (because it's impossible to know what will happen).
But his sunshine is a relief at a time of economic gloom, and his gathering of political weight is no illusion. It was no mean achievement for him to be re-elected as Mayor, even given the weakness of his opponent: for a Conservative of any kind to have won in this year's conditions was astonishing. And he is not going away, as Messrs Osborne and Cameron know well.
How they must fear his sense of timing. The attack on Mitt Romney isn't so much for the crowd as for the news. Like the volte-face of the media, it was unfair, but it was also politically faultless. It gave an additional dimension and projection to the banalties that are indispensible for such a speech. And it was fleshed out by that zest for life that Boris brings to almost everything he does.