Not many public figures achieve instant first-name recognition, but in England today, there is only one "Boris"—not Godunov or Karloff, but Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, newspaper columnist, former editor of the Spectator, Conservative member of Parliament, and now prospective Tory candidate for mayor of London. His family called him Alexander as a boy, but by cannily choosing to be known by his second name, Boris showed an early flair for publicity that hasn't deserted him.
After days on end when he teasingly refused to say whether he would accept the proposal made by David Cameron, his party leader—and friend from Eton and Oxford days—to stand against Ken Livingstone, the current mayor of London and indeed the only one there has been, Boris turned up on his bike to tell a characteristically chaotic press conference that he would go for it. Others had warned him against the idea, but "I say phooey."
In one view, being mayor is the proverbial pitcherful of warm bodily fluid. The job itself is new, and not to be confused with the lord mayor of London, an ancient office once held by Dick Whittington of pantomime fame and now purely ceremonial. The lord mayor is a bigwig banker or broker who enjoys a 12-month term presiding in splendid robes over the City of London, the "square mile" between Fleet Street and the Tower of London that remains the nation's great financial center.
As part of its vaunted scheme for devolving power, Tony Blair's New Labor government gave London an elected mayor for the first time, as New York or Paris already had, responsible for a huge city and a huge amount of problems. Like most things Blair did, this was a cynical political maneuver, and it was duly punished in 2000 when Livingstone, a far-left renegade, challenged the party leadership and was elected on a protest vote.
His terms as mayor—he was re-elected in 2004—have been a catalog of controversy. Ken (he, too, is recognized by his forename) successfully introduced a "congestion charge" on cars entering London. When the U.S. Embassy declined to pay, claiming diplomatic immunity, Livingstone denounced Robert Tuttle, the ambassador, as "one of George Bush's closest cronies" who was behaving "like some chiseling little crook."
Then, when Oliver Finegold, a reporter from the Evening Standard—London's evening paper, which is engaged in a prolonged duel with Livingstone—asked him an innocuous question, the reporter was told that he was behaving like a Nazi camp guard. Finegold said that he found the words offensive, as he was Jewish, to which Livingstone replied, "Well you might be, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren't you?" That kind of mayoral repartee would "shame a loudmouth pub buffoon," the Guardian said; the Times added bluntly that "Ken Livingstone is a fool."
Boris is no fool—he won elite academic scholarships to both school and college, where he read classics, and he writes prolifically and entertainingly—but there are those who think he, too, is a buffoon. That was the very word the Guardian's Polly Toynbee used in an envenomed attack on this "jester, toff, self-absorbed sociopath and serial liar." An interesting choice of epithets, by the way, and perhaps a case of Freudian projection. Toynbee really is a "toff"—granddaughter of the famous historian and great-great-granddaughter of the Earl of Carlisle, whose magnificent country seat at Castle Howard was made more famous by the televised Brideshead Revisited. Boris, on the other hand, for all that he plays his own version of Bertie Wooster, turns out to be barely English: He says endearingly that, with one Turkish and one Jewish grandparent, he is a "one-man melting pot."
"Serial liar" is a blunt charge, but it's true that Boris was sacked from his first newspaper job for inventing a quote, and he was called "a duplicitous scoundrel" by his sometime employer Conrad Black, no mean judge, one might think. That was meant almost good-naturedly, and Black was alluding to the way that Boris gets away with things. But not everybody is entirely enamored. His shtick begins with a truly conspicuous appearance. Contemplating Boris' famedtoilette—the crumpled suit, the scuffed shoes, the socks that don't match, the great tousled mop of straw-blond hair that has apparently never been anywhere near a comb—a Spectator colleague said tersely, "It must take an hour's careful dressing each morning to achieve that effect."
Then there is his private life, if it can be called private. He was married early and briefly, then once more, but he has not allowed matrimony to cramp his style. The late Auberon Waugh said that the phrase "meeting people" needed to be understood in the sense of "sexual intercourse" in such contexts as, "The Young Conservatives offer plenty of opportunities for meeting people." That also holds true of political life more generally.
When the news got out that he was carrying on with Petronella Wyatt, an employee at the Spectator, Boris first insisted that this was "an inverted pyramid of piffle," but it turned out to be all too true, and we then had too much information about secret trysts, pregnancy, un-pregnancy, and whatnot. Showing a bravado bordering on the psychopathic, Boris was subsequently spotted in the small hours by one of our dirty tabloids as he emerged from the apartment of a pretty young research assistant, doubtless after a hard night working on policy documents.
And none of it makes any difference at all: Every gaffe and outrage glides off Boris like rain off an oilskin. Things have changed, of course, and for the better, since the days when eminent statesmen could be ruined by a divorce case, or indeed when any kind of sexual scandal was politically fatal. There are nowadays numerous divorced and cohabiting people in the Cabinet, and openly gay politicians on both sides of the House of Commons. Bill Clinton survived his domestic difficulties, and Sen. David Vitter may yet survive the wrath of God, his wife, and Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post (in ascending order of wrathfulness).
But Boris is unique: He is the first politician to parlay adultery into a career. Every time his trousers go down, his popularity goes up. I know anecdotally that respectable ladies of a certain age in Gloucestershire and Somerset think that Boris is adorable, perhaps fantasizing that they too might run their fingers through that mop.
What Mrs. Johnson makes of it is another matter, and any other married man who writes about Boris might at this point be suspected of grinding his teeth. Certainly, any other professional journalist could scarcely deny a flicker of envy. Boris makes 400,000 pounds a year from writing and speaking, including 250,000 pounds for a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph. No doubt that sum—$500,000 a year, $10,000 a piece, $10 a word—seems a pittance to American columnists, but it's quite a lot over here.
He is, to be sure, a very readable and funny writer. At a time when the drums of war were beating, and the Washington and London governments were making our flesh creep with dire warnings about Saddam's armaments, Gordon Brown, who was then chancellor of the exchequer and is now prime minister, presented a budget statement to the House of Commons, using some fairly dubious economic statistics. Or as Boris put it, the chancellor threatened us "with weapons of maths destruction."
Then Tony Blair took one of his many holiday junkets at someone else's expense, this time in a Tuscan palazzo, not only beautiful and tranquil but with its own supply of wine, olive oil, ham, and figs—altogether the sort of place any member of the bruschetta-and-pesto chattering class would kill for. We had always wondered what Blair was really for or against, Boris wrote, and now we knew: "He is prosciuto and antipasto."
That kind of wit, along with charm and cheek, can take someone a long way, and the English, despite the reputation of our staid and damp little island, have always had a soft spot for characters and "cards." The betting is that Boris' colorful personality will indeed win him the Tory nomination, and it's at least possible that he will defeat Livingstone.
And then? "London can take it" was the slogan during the Blitz, and London can probably take Boris, perhaps even survive him. For his part, the job could be fun, and it must surely offer plenty of opportunities for meeting people.