9 Oct 2012

Boris Johnson: classic Tory or political maverick?

As he showed during his speech to the Conservative Party conference, London mayor Boris Johnson laps up the limelight – but what are his real politics?

“He’s a fairly classic – that is, small state – mildly eurosceptic Conservative,” summarises the LSE’s Boris-watcher and local government expert Tony Travers.

“At the same time, he shares with Osborne and Cameron modern social liberalism. By that I mean they’ve thrown off the social conservatism that some of the party still espouse.”

Being mayor of such a cosmopolitan city as London means appealing to a wide cross section of voters and to be elected Boris had to show a more relaxed attitude to traditional Conservative concerns such as gay marriage and abortion.

His manifesto promised to help women back into work, and he showed liberal tendencies over immigration, a stance which has caused friction between him and the government.

But such gambits have also enabled Boris to appeal to centre-left voters.

Such examples look to back up Boris’s socially liberal leanings, but Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, executive director of the research organisation Democratic Audit, pointed out to Channel 4 News that this tendency to go off message periodically can also be seen as an endearing characteristic by voters: “There’s a reason why the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis Skinner have survived and it’s because people like candidates who don’t always toe the party line.

“It’s perhaps why people voted for Ken Livingstone as an independent.”

Shire appeal

Behind the intriguing social liberalism front however, beats the economic heart of a child of the Thatcher era. Both Tony Travers and Dr Wilks-Heeg say Boris’s economic ideas are firmly of the Iron Lady school.

And in more than one way, figuratively speaking, aristocratic Boris has blue blood. Tony Travers says Boris “contains enough traditional Conservative values to appeal to the shires”.

“He’s good at hoovering up UKIP votes. What he is doing is sending out a classic Tory message.” An unashamed supporter of tax cuts and, more controversially, the banks, Boris has somehow managed to charm the centre ground with views that irk and seduce in equal measure.

But Stuart Wilks-Heeg caveats all talk of the London mayor’s political ideas with the observation “Boris is politically nimble” – perhaps a way of saying the Johnson school of politics is a comprehensive rather than a grammar. His performance and successes as mayor, dismissed in some critical quarters as having ridden the coat tails of programmes started by his predecessor Ken Livingstone, have nonetheless secured him a second term in office.

Tony Travers describes Johnson’s time in office as having governed “the existing collection of services in a pretty benign way.

“He doesn’t have a strong desire to govern in a directive, top-down statist way” but has a touch of the patrician about him – “a mix of Thatcher and Macmillan,” suggests Travers.

Future premier?

So it would appear the Boris brand is of the centre, but the Conservative party recently has been veering rightwards so what does that mean for Johnson’s leadership ambitions?

Stuart Wilks-Heeg is unconvinced there will be a future Johnson premiership. “If he was really tested as a politician and on this capacity to manage a government or get the cabinet to pull in one direction, I just couldn’t see it happening.

“He’s appealing because he’s a man of the moment, post-Olympics. He’s charismatic and challenges the government but I just don’t think that would translate into him being a good PM.”

He and Tony Travers are agreed that it’s a bad idea to underestimate Boris. After all, his political successes – being elected to parliament and then winning two terms as London mayor, were not widely predicted. Dr Wilks-Heeg says as fewer and fewer people have party loyalties, more are voting on their perceptions of party leaders.

He told Channel 4 News: “If Boris can use his charisma and if he can hold the party together, then he may pull off an election victory, perhaps even a workable majority. But these are big ifs.”