"He is the Ulysses of our time, and sees the leadership as his Penelope. The Mayoralty is only Calypso – a stopping-point on the way
back to what he sees as his own, as his possession. His competitors are
the suitors. He is coming for them with a quiverful of fiery arrows."
The Mayor of London's leadership ambitions are haunted by what Donald Rumsfeld would call a Known Known and a Known UnKnown.
The Known Known is the unhappy timing, from his point of view, of the next general and Mayoral elections. The first takes place in May 2015. The second takes place a year after. Were Boris to re-enter the Commons in 2015 and David Cameron to lose, the election the former would not be able to enter an immediate Conservative leadership contest without being seen to break his word to serve a full-term as Mayor. (It is one thing to be both Mayor and an MP, as Ken Livingstone has done. It would be another to be both Mayor and a Party leader.)
The Known UnKnown is the general election result. I write above about the possibility of Cameron no longer being Prime Minister after 2015, but it's far from certain that this will be the case. He may well return to Downing Street at the head of another coalition government – either a recasting of this one with the Liberal Democrats, or a new one with the minor parties. A Boris who had re-entered the Commons would, in these circumstances, be entitled to a Cabinet post: given his twice-victorious record in London, a Labour City, it could scarcely be otherwise.
- For Boris, it's the leadership…or nothing. He doesn't want to re-enter the Commons if the leadership of the Conservative Party doesn't folow the move. Hence his hints that he may seek a third term as Mayor.
- He doesn't want to serve as a Cabinet Minister under David Cameron. Given Boris's London experience and enthusiasm for infrastructure, Cameron could delight in offering him not a great office of state…but Local Government or Transport. The Mayor would regard both as beneath him.
- He doesn't want to wait until 2020 to contest the leadership. By then our hero would be in his mid-50s. A new generation of bright young things would be pushing for the leadership. There is a risk that by that date Boris would be old hat. We must assume that the Cameron-and-Osborne duo, then on its second term, would do nothing to aid his ambitions.
- He doesn't want to be seen to be challenging Cameron for the leadership. The Mayor likes to remind people of his ambitions from time to time. But he doesn't want speculation to get out of control. This might happen were he to seek to re-enter the Commons in 2015: the move would be written up as "Boris is returning because he expects Cameron to lose".
All these are reasons not to stand for Parliament in 2015. However, one powerful point cuts across their drift: namely, that Boris must be "there on the night". In other words, he can't afford to miss out – not to be in the Commons if a leadership election takes place in 2015 – whatever he has promised the voters of London. Forget the clever arguments about the leader of the Party not having to be an MP: in the merciless world of politics, a Tory leader must be in the Commons. Boris risks being left high and dry if he doesn't stand for Parliament next time round.
No wonder, then, that the Mayor, caught between the Scylla of five years in the Commons under Cameron and the Charybdis of missing out on a leadership contest, is casting around for what to do. Forsyth suggests that Team Boris now leans towards sitting May 2015 out and – if Miliband enters Downing Street – standing for a by-election only a few weeks later. This is perhaps the best means of squaring the circle. It avoids the risk of being stuck in a Cameron Cabinet for five years. It bypasses the challenge to the latter's prospects of running in the general election.
And it is arguably a less serious breach of Boris's promise to serve a second full term as Mayor: he would presumably plead "unforeseen circumstances", Heseltine-like, were he to seek to enter the Commons after the 2015 election rather than before. However, there is an obvious flaw in the logic of this case. Why should a Conservative MP who has only just been returned to the Commons stand down, just to help make Boris leader? Suppose such a person doesn't emerge? What does Boris do then?
Team Boris and the Man Himself will doubtless debate all this back and forth. But one point about it stands out very clearly – namely, that while Boris's calcuations may be tortuous, his underlying aim is simple. It is to present himself, if Cameron loses in 2015, as the candidate that the Party really wants – as indeed our polling consistently suggests. It follows that there would be no point in having a contest without him: Theresa May, Michael Gove and all the rest of them would be dwarves in the shadow of the giant from Islington-Les-Deux-Eglises.
Party members would call for Boris. The media would demand Boris – at least, as a participant in any election. Opponents of Boris for the leadership would be cast as slippery elitists, seeking to deny the members the contest they want: the Chancellor, in particular, would come under close scrutiny. Hints of a peerage would doubtless be dropped by Boris's camp in the ears of any Tory MP with a suitable seat. In short, Boris is working to create the Ultimate Bandwagon Leadership Campaign. He wants Tory MPs, pressured by their Associations, to seek to scramble aboard.
It could all go wrong – if it happens at all. I saw two leadership bandwagon ventures come to grief when I was in the Commons: first Michael Portillo's, then David Davis's. And in so far as it matters, I am not at all sure that Boris would win the backing of the centre-right press, especially the Mail. His private life would come under intense scrutiny. But his logic has a certain plausibility and dramatic force. If the Conservatives don't win in 2015, they won't have won for the best part of 25 years. There would be a strong case for a gamble – for a leap in the dark.
I have compared the Mayor to an angel, a warthog and Sir Winston Churchill. All these similitudes have a point, but none quite hit the gold. Maybe the best way of thinking about Boris is as Ulysses, which marries up with his classical sympathies. Heroic, cunning, self-aggrandising, pre-Christian, larger than life, all-enduring, he sees the leadership as his Penelope. The Mayoralty is only Calypso – a stopping-point on the way back to what he sees as his own, as his possession. His competitors are the suitors. He is coming for them with a quiverful of fiery arrows.