UK Politics

Highwire act Boris Johnson defies political gravity

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Media captionBoris Johnson shouted "gold medal" while dangling on a zip wire for several minutes. Video: Laura Mullane

"Clearly the judges are likely to have marked the Mayor down for artistic impression!"

In a sentence from his spokesman, an insight into how the political rulebook does not seem to apply to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

If politicians are seen by many as somewhat vanilla, Boris Johnson is a jumbo knickerbocker glory.

For the Mayor of London, getting stuck on a zipwire is just the latest addition to what we should call the "Boris files" - the drawer in the filing cabinet marked "incidents that can finish a politician".

Yet many claim he is becoming more popular.

Can you imagine the Labour leader Ed Miliband or the Chancellor George Osborne, or any other senior politician in the UK, doing this and their reputation being, arguably, enhanced?

Just hours before Mr Johnson was strapped in, put on a blue helmet and commandeered a couple of Union flags for the maiden flight on the wire in London's Victoria Park, this is how he was being talked up in the Daily Telegraph.

Tory wet

"As donors stampede to back Boris, the PM can only watch," read the headline to Benedict Brogan's column. Describing those within the Conservative Party who would like to see Mr Johnson in Downing Street one day, Mr Brogan wrote: "it is Boris Johnson who has snatched the spotlight away from the prime minister and used the Games as a launchpad for his leadership ambitions."

So how has he not just survived, but made a virtue out of moments that would leave most politicians hastily looking for another career?

Firstly, let's indulge ourselves by taking a peek in the Boris files. He is, after all, one of the very, very few politicians known almost universally by his first name.

Image caption The future London Mayor showed unorthodox technique during a 2006 football match

If you thought this airborne embarrassment was quite something, there has been a bit of the underwater variety too. In 2009, he fell into a river, with the cameras capturing the moment. In keeping with his consistent brand of eccentricity, many said it added to his profile and his reputation. Compare that with the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock falling into the sea in Brighton in 1983.

Before Mr Johnson's airborne and sub aqua escapades, events in late 2004 would themselves have been enough to sink many a politician.

First, in October of that year, he was ordered to visit Liverpool to apologise in person for a magazine article that criticised the city's response to the murder of Ken Bigley, who was killed in Iraq.

The then MP was also editor of The Spectator when it carried an opinion piece saying the city was wallowing in "disproportionate" grief for Mr Bigley, adding it was part of the "deeply unattractive psyche" of many on Merseyside.

A month later, he was sacked as a shadow minister and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party after tabloid allegations about his private life and what he had, or had not, told his then boss, Michael Howard.

He had dismissed the allegations, incidentally, as "an inverted pyramid of piffle".

This remark brings us onto another section of the Boris files worth a look.

He has an extraordinary talent for the memorable phrase. A lucrative talent, for him, too, as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

Take the arrival of the Olympic flame at the Tower of London just before the Olympics. The flame was the star. Or was it?

"As Henry VIII discovered, with at least two of his wives, this is the perfect place to bring an old flame," Mr Johnson said.

In 22 words, he had stolen the show.

As enthusiasm grew for the Olympics in the days before the opening ceremony, he said: "The Geiger Counter of Olympomania is going to go zoink."


And how did he describe the beach volleyball? The players were "glistening like wet otters." Again, ask yourself the question: can you imagine another politician ever saying that?

And can you imagine any other politician having his or her first name chanted, in appreciation, in front of a crowd of 60,000 people? It happened to Boris Johnson in Hyde Park in central London the night before the Olympics began.

So what is the official response from Downing Street to Boris Johnson's most recent incident?

"If any other politician got stuck on a zipwire it would be disastrous. With Boris it's a triumph. London is lucky to have him."

The subtext is pretty striking. "London is lucky to have him" will be translated by some to "and that is where he should stay."

With vast quantities of chutzpah and an embarrassment threshold much higher than that zipwire, Boris Johnson can command the Olympic stage.

His critics point out, as Mayor of London, it is a stage with little responsibility. A stage more tolerant of his quirks and fun.

Boris Johnson for Prime Minister, they say, is ludicrous. A joke in itself.

Yet no one disputes he can connect with people who might be otherwise indifferent to politics. And for all his capers and apparent catastrophes, few dispute he is seriously ambitious.

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