On Monday, I was coming back from a coaching in East London. As I made the interchange to the Jubilee line I did a little mental double-take, when, lo and behold, in front of me was none other than the embodiment of Old Etonian, Bullingdon Club, posh boy Barnum and Bailey act, the venerable Mayor of London, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Let me make it clear: I am not a Boris fan. For me, he is a sideshow act; although I do believe he is serious about having power. Having watched Eddie Mair eviscerate him on the Marr show the day before, I was curious to see him up close and personal. What came across strongly on first impression was: nothing. There was a cold vacuousness there, a vacuousness that was deliberate, possibly an armour designed to shield the real Boris from public view. Looking into his eyes for a split second, a chill went through me – there seemed to be a void of real empathy. As two young women approached him, in clear approval, he relaxed; while observing these interactions, it was more about what they were projecting on to him rather than any true engagement on his part. What was evident however is how much Boris craves approval; and that underneath the shambolic exterior beats the heart of a political vampire. Someone who is astute at how to play his own game, no matter what the cost to others.
My ten-minute assessment of Boris Johnson was re-iterated in the BBC programme “The Irresistible rise of Boris Johnson”. Although the title itself (paraphrased from Brecht’s play about Arturo Ui) may not have been wholly impartial, it did attempt to portray a rather more loveable character than came across. What did come across, even from close friends and family, was how utterly ruthless BoJo is, and that his only concern politically was his own elevation. The incredible thing to me was, the day after, his stock had actually risen with the public. Which begs the question: why are we surprised and outraged when the politicians we elect into public office so often disappoint us?
There is obviously an issue with the way the voting system is skewed in favour of the main parties, with it much harder for smaller parties to get a look in – it is telling, despite having had one of the most talented politicians of her generation in Caroline Lucas that the Greens have still only managed to get one seat at Westminster. However, it is mind-boggling after an exposé where people who have known him intimately said that they wouldn’t trust him as a politician that, in the public’s eyes, he can do no wrong. Despite the mention by Eddie Mair of his thuggishness by association with Darius Guppy, and his well-documented disregard for his various wives and assorted mistresses, it was clear on my Tube journey, despite it being an obvious damage limitation exercise, that the general public held Boris in esteem; and once he felt that someone approved of him, he allowed them to project their own need to feel good on him. It is a very unique ability to have; but is it enough to win elections?
Yes and no. Certainly, the ability to allow people to project their hopes and aspirations on to one person elevated Barack Obama from a relatively unknown senator in 2007 to POTUS – twice. But this was done in conjunction with the most effective political campaign in recent history; I’m not convinced that same sort of relentless spin, in a post-Campbell era, would have the same resonance in the UK. It remains to be seen how much dissatisfaction with the Tory cuts will affect their chances of winning the next election; and it may be that even the popularity of BoJo will not be enough to save them. It depends also on how aggressively tactical the Labour party are, and whether they are perceived of champions of the people – Ed Miliband, who may be sincere but is charmless has not made clear what he is for, so much as what he is against – and negative campaigning will not win the next election.
But ultimately, we, the electorate, are responsible for being kingmakers. At the last general election, a little over 65% of registered voters came out – which was in fairness more than in 2005 at a little over 59%; but much less than in 1992 at almost 78%. In this next election, it is vital that every single voter that can vote, does; but also that we hold politicians to account and make it clear that victory will come to the party that is issue, rather than personality led.
The main issues, as I see them are as follows: the reformation of the voting system to proportional representation; the regulation of the financial sector; the reversal of privatising institutions like the NHS; the reversal of some of the more obscene policies, like the bedroom tax; and the reformation of taxation on corporations. When the public are insistent on radical change, and use their votes accordingly, then the cult of personality politics will have to give way to something more substantive. The real question is: do we realise the power we have? And will we have the courage to use it?