During the commemorations for the First World War in August, the BBC showed aerial shots of London just before the “lights out” event, when many of the capital’s public buildings went dark. It was a quite fabulous sight, with the city on that hot, clear evening looking about as beautiful as I can remember it. And, just as one feels when looking down from a plane as it comes into Heathrow, it was reassuring, and harmonious, and peaceful.
On the ground though, things have been taking nasty turns here and there. A black Islamist flag flew for a while in the East End, and was also seen (but largely ignored by the media) during a demonstration in the middle of Blackwall tunnel, when the underground traffic route I have used a thousand times was blocked by anti-Israel protesters. As I write this, supporters of ISIS are being investigated for openly distributing recruitment literature on London’s main shopping destination, Oxford Street. A Sainsbury’s store in Holborn removed kosher food.
Not so harmonious or peaceful then. But for the courtiers of the Westminster bubble, this was not really the story. Rather, it was the final admission by Boris Johnson that he would be seeking re-entry into Parliament at the next election, a year before his second term as Mayor of London is up.
Cue days of fevered speculation about what this meant for the Conservative party, for David Cameron, for UKIP, and most of all for Boris himself. The fact that he is the only politician in the country recognisable by his first name alone is enough to induce wide-eyed admiration in those who chart the game of Westminster snakes and ladders.
I’m afraid I’ve never quite got the fascination. Well, being a UKIP spokesman, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Not so, actually — long before I was ever involved in the party Boris’s charm somehow eluded me.
As with his spiritual brothers Stephen Fry and Hugh Grant, the haphazard, crusty-but-lovable eccentricity always seemed rather studied, hiding a smug superiority and sense of entitlement. So the personal style, the qualities which we’re told endear him to voters and ensure he reaches the parts other Tories cannot, never struck me as particularly real.
Has he been a good mayor for London? There has been the reintroduction of the redesigned Routemaster bus, and the so-called Boris Bikes. As its figurehead he has presided over the already ongoing transformation of London from one kind of city into another. There has been none of the sectarianism which characterised the approach of his predecessor Ken Livingstone, a mayor who managed to leave some Londoners feeling despised by him.
Otherwise, it’s hard to come up with many major achievements. Where he has certainly been effective is in using his well-honed persona to represent the city to the rest of the country and indeed the world (while at the same time, of course, promoting himself).
This reached its climax at the 2012 Olympic Games, when pictures of him harnessed and hanging awkwardly from a cable brought him to a peak of popularity, illustrating as it did the sort of pantomime, sporting amateurism which goes down so well with sections of the British public.
But London is one thing, the country another, and I’m not convinced by the notion of Boris as a national political game-changer. It is still the case, remarkably and despite the received wisdom of the political class, that beliefs and ideas — convictions if you like — are of immeasurably greater importance to voters than showmanship or likeability. Margaret Thatcher won three elections without having much of either.
Do people know what Boris Johnson believes in? He slips and slides. Take Islamism: after the 7/7 Tube and bus bombings, he was quite clear in stating that Islam was itself the problem. A few years later and for Boris it was once again the religion of peace. On immigration, he mooted the idea of an amnesty for illegal immigrants, although that seems to have been replaced by tough talking. As for his Euroscepticism, his most recent speech at Bloomberg was a classic case of running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds.
What people have probably gathered is that Boris wants to be prime minister. But those amused by him and who feel well-disposed towards him aren’t necessarily going to vote for him if and when he takes over from Cameron. The polls have shown that a Tory party led by him receives only a modest opinion poll boost.
The Boris effect tends to weaken the further from London you go: northern voters are as averse to colourful Tories as they are to the everyday kind. And the strong support UKIP has in areas of the North comes from many such people, so it has little to fear from a Boris-led party. Meanwhile, however, for the Westminster bubble, Boris is certain to remain the gift that keeps on giving.