Boris Johnson’s way with the public is not an end in itself. It is a commodity that he is eager to sell. The years ahead will see no shortage of bidders.
In the tussle over the Olympic legacy, one thing is certain. Their success has made Boris Johnson look like a winner. At the rally on the Mall on Monday his speech prompted cheers and even chants of “Boris, Boris”. He is the darling of the crowds at a time when the Conservative Chancellor – and his Labour oppposite number - find themselves booed when they show themselves in public. Johnson’s appeal is determinedly non-partisan. He represents himself as a bluff, youngish cove, a wellspring of positivity in a political culture dominated by think tank alumni and calculating spoilsports. He is all Merrie Englande and speaking as he finds. But there was a moment on Monday that gave us a glimpse of the deeper game he is playing. Having waggishly praised the athletes for bringing the country ‘together in a way we never expected’ he thanked ‘the armed services and the police and … and G4S and all the people who work for them, yes’. The pause was gambler’s, weighing the risk of another throw.
It might seem strange that Johnson would risk spoiling the mood with a reference to the bungling private contractor. But it was only the latest in a string of advertisements for himself as someone willing to place his personal popularity at the service of a deeply unsettled structure of power. Even at the Olympics he was eager to show the prophylactic effects of his personality. On August 3rd, for example, he attended the games with Rupert Murdoch, a man most politicians are currently eager to avoid. The calculated recklessness forms part of a pattern.
Back in October 2009 he told the Conservative party conference that he knew how unpopular the ‘pariahs’ in finance were and how far out on a limb he was in defending them. But he urged ‘banker bashers’ to remember that ‘the leper colony in the City of London produces 9% of UK GDP, 13% of value added and taxes that pay for roads and schools and hospitals’. The rhetoric was at once forthright and misleading. Recent tax receipts from finance have been dwarfed by the direct costs of the bailout. And roads, schools and hospitals make an increasingly generous contribution to the City’s balance sheet, thanks to PFI and associated boondoggles.
In October last year protesters occupied a piece of land outside Saint Paul’s. Johnson was soon calling on them to go ‘in the name of God and Mammon’. He also supported new legislation to prevent camps from ‘erupting like boils’. This summer, he briefly wondered ‘why, when something as serious as rigging LIBOR has taken place, are there no criminal prosecutions?’ But it was a question he didn’t linger over. A week or so later he was redecorating the crime scene with a gloss of obscure allusions: ‘We mustn’t now go around like priests of Baal, cutting ourselves and immolating ourselves in the whole agony of this LIBOR business, behaving like priests of the Shrine of Sain or Kabul bonking ourselves repeatedly over the head with wooden blocks until we bleed’.
By the end of the month he had shifted to a much more workaday language of exculpation: ‘I don’t think we want to go through an endless orgy of stable door banging and excessive regulation on the financial services sector, which is actually one of the few sectors in the economy which is showing signs of growth and putting on jobs’. He was also combining a can-do spirit with support for private investment in state infrastructure. ‘There’s a danger of overdoing the gloom … I would like to see a very aggressive campaign for more infrastructure investment. There are… sovereign wealth funds around the world who are only too happy to come and invest in this country. What it needs is the political will to get on and do those projects.’ The City isn’t all that eager to pay for these projects through taxation. But it is happy to broker the deals.
After Johnson’s performance on Monday Suzanne Moore dubbed him ‘Borisconi’. And the analogy is apt in more ways than one. Allowing for national differences in the libidinal economy, mutatis mutandis as Johnson might say, he offers the same sort of vicarious wish fulfillment as the former Italian Prime Minister. Many ordinarily indifferent voters would like to be a bit more familiar with the difference between a gerund and a gerundive, a bit more forward with the ladies, a bit less buttoned down. Johnson’s pose as a kind of posh Sid James is a serviceable translation of Il Cavaliere’s unspoken, unspeakable proposition to the Italian people.
Silvio Berlusconi first came to power in the midst of a crisis in the Italian state. The Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’) scandal had discredited both centre left and centre right. Under the circumstances he was a valuable safeguard against the danger that the country’s entire order of power and property would collapse. For whose fortune was secure, when so much had been stolen? Berlusconi organized a successful election campaign around his somewhat queasy charisma and the slogan ‘Forza Italia!’ – ‘Come on, Italy!’ His media empire cast him as the country’s saviour and his opponents had no wish to point out the truth, that he was more like a getaway driver. His first term as Prime Minister gave the whole system time to recover.
Britain is arguably in the midst of a similar breakdown of political authority. The financial crisis, the News International affair, and a series of scandals in the City have raised doubts about the survival of the political and economic order in its current form. These doubts are not widely broadcast but they preoccupy what the Australians would call the Big End of Town, the people who own the country and like to see matters managed to their satisfaction. A breakdown of this magnitude raises questions about the distribution of property. Whose fortune will be safe, when so much has been secured through gaming state power, through outright criminality?
The City wants to ensure that the end of the current arrangements will not mean the end of their privileges, that change has properly conservative consequences. Johnson is eager to be of service. Cast your mind a few years from now. Cameron’s government has fallen and been replaced by a Labour administration unable to administer the analgesic of economic growth to an increasingly restive, if still wildly ill-informed, country. Is it so difficult to imagine Boris leading a new party that promises to make us feel like winners again? I can hear his campaign slogan now. For ‘Forza Italia!’ read ‘Buck Up, Britain!’