9 Oct 2012

Boris Johnson’s journey from buffoon to party hero

“My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive” – so said Boris Johnson in 2004.

Eight years later there are plenty within the Conservative Party, and across the country, who would disagree. So how has the “gaffe-prone buffoon”, as he was once referred to, progressed to becoming a genuine leadership prospect who has won the hearts of his party and the nation?

Following a “rock star” entrance to to the Birmingham conference yesterday, and praise following his speech today, Mr Johnson has come along way from blunders that marred his reputation as an MP and journalist.

Mr Johnson’s gaffes can be divided into two time specific eras, pre-2008, the year of his election as mayor of London, and post-2008 (see image, below).

Before becoming London mayor, Mr Johnson’s blunders included racially stereotyping the Congolese people as “picaninnies”, linking Papua New Guinea to “cannibalism and chief-killing”, and allegedly lying about an affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt, for which he was sacked from the Tory front bench.

He’s up there with ‘JLO’, ‘GaGa’ and ‘Jacko’. He has one-word brand equity. He is ‘Boris’ – Mark Borkowski, Borkowski.do

As editor of the Spectator magazine in 2004, Johnson published an article which angered the city of Liverpool. Liverpudlian Ken Bigley had been recently beheaded in Iraq when the article said locals enjoyed wallowing in a “victim status”. In the same article views were aired that drunken Liverpool fans had been partly responsible for the Hillsborough disaster. He later visited the city to apologise for the article (pictured, below right).

Following his election his gaffes – if that is what they are – became limited to getting stuck on a zip wire and making disparaging comments about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The change in public perception, as a result of a change from serious to light-hearted blunders, is reflected in newspaper reports on the politician. In 2007 there were 107 UK newspaper articles written about Boris Johnson which included the word “buffoon” and in 2008 there were 171 such articles. From 2009 to 2011, the number of articles in which Mr Johnson has been referred to as a buffon has dropped to an average of 24 per year.

Boris Johnson visits Liverpool in 2004 (Reuters)

Risk taker

But it is his risk-taking attitude to his public persona, according to PR expert Mark Borkowski of Borkowski.do, that appeals to the public.

“He is a risk taker and sometimes he gets it wrong”, Mr Borkowski told Channel 4 News. “People can make gaffes, as long as they don’t make them again – and he has learnt from his mistakes”.

Mr Borkowski also said that Mr Johnson has “good people around him”, such as his Lynton Crosbie, the political strategist who ran Mr Johnson’s mayoral election campaign.


It is Mr Johnson’s election to the role of mayor of London that has helped his profile as well. He received the most Google searches for his name since the start of 2004 on the day he was elected, and his time in office has been marked by increasing attention on the search engine.

It won’t be his enemies he will need to watch but his friends – Mark Borkwoski

Mr Borkowski said: “As the majority of the media is centred on the UK capital, he has a lot more visibility.” At the same time, Mr Borkowski said, the mayor of London enjoys a position as an “underdog”, someone who does not have a parliamentary seat and who is outside of the centre of UK politics.

“When you are a politician in the centre of power than you can’t do anything right,” said Mr Borkowski.

“Look at Vince Cable. He was everyone’s favourite politician when he was out of government. When he was in power then he was restricted in what he could do and the stakes became higher.”

A rare beast

But key to the cult of Boris Johnson is his personality. “He is a rare beast,” says Mr Borkowski. “He has got what we call in the PR world ‘the stuff’.

“He’s got a remarkable, and I would say organic, ability to communicate.” Mr Borkowski added, “He’s up there with JLO, Gaga and Jacko. He has one-word brand equity. He is ‘Boris’.”

However, this does not mean his path to the job of prime minister, if the road is cleared for him, will necessarily be easy.

“The issue is whether he is liked as a media figure or whether he is liked enough to get a seat in power,” Mr Borkowski said. “And that’s when the knives will come out. That’s when he will start getting internal spin against him, it won’t be his enemies he will need to watch but his friends.”