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So Boris has made his great leap. The blond king over the water has revealed his plans to cross the river, return to Parliament and assume what he believes is his rightful destiny — to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The first signs came with his uncharacteristically Eurosceptic speech this week. Yes, he said, Britain could — perhaps should — leave Europe, if it couldn’t negotiate more favourable terms. This set him at odds with David Cameron and sent a ripple of excitement through the Tory grass roots.
Next came the big announcement: he will stand as an MP in 2015. After his speech on Europe on Wednesday, the Mayor dropped the bombshell in his traditional doublespeak: ‘I might as well be absolutely clear that, in all probability, I will try to find somewhere to stand in 2015. It is highly likely that I will be unsuccessful in that venture, by the way. You should never underestimate the possibility of things going badly wrong. But I will try that. But one thing is absolutely clear, I will serve out my mandate here in London.’
Now that Boris is back in the fray, and making Eurosceptic noises, he has an excellent chance of making it to No. 10. A recent poll of Tory members by the ConservativeHome website found that more than three quarters support leaving the EU, if a free trade agreement can accompany withdrawal, or staying in if a beneficial renegotiation takes place.
Although he’s standing next year, Boris has promised he will do right by the voters of London and remain Mayor until his term ends in 2016. People may wonder whether that’s possible. Well, Ken Livingstone did it: he served as MP for Brent East during his first term as Mayor.
Boris’s traditional approach when given a choice of two plum jobs is to take both. That’s what he did when he became an MP while editor of this magazine, in contravention of a promise to The Spectator’s then proprietor, Conrad Black. As Boris says, his policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.
Boris knew that, if he wanted to get his hands on the lusted-for Excalibur, he must return to Parliament — despite his 2012 pledge not to do so while he was still Mayor. And who better than Boris to pull off one of his ‘Mayor maxima culpa’ exercises in wriggling off the hook? He’ll claim he’s representing London’s interests in Parliament; handy, then, if he gets a seat in the capital or its suburbs.
Paul Goodman, Boris’s former colleague at the Telegraph and in the Commons, and now executive editor of ConservativeHome, lays out the ideal comeback trajectory for the Tory party’s golden boy: ‘At Party conference in September, the fatted calf will be well and truly butchered for the Prodigal Boris, as he is reunited in public with the ever-patient David Cameron,’ he says. ‘In October, his Churchillian credentials for leadership are stressed, when his biography of Britain’s wartime leader is published. And during the election campaign itself, he hits the stump to reach the parts of the electorate that other Conservatives simply can’t.’
Boris is already forming a loose-knit collection of supporters — FOBs, friends of Boris, to engage in mortal combat with the FOGs, friends of George Osborne, should there be a leadership contest.
Jesse Norman and Zac Goldsmith are said to be keen FOBs — they have received little preferment under Cameron and bring powerful cadres of MPs in their wake. Alongside them is Nadine Dorries, one of the few Tory MPs to back Boris openly.
Boris’s deputy mayor, Kit Malthouse — who has the safe seat of North-West Hampshire lined up at the election — will be a staunch ally in the next Parliament. Interesting how Boris loyalists slip easily into safe seats while Cameron’s former advisers have to talk their way past grass-roots Tory opposition to coalition policies.
And here’s where the FOBs have the edge over the FOGs. George’s gang are largely in it for themselves. Their loyalty remains tied up with their own ambitions, which Osborne wisely satisfies from time to time. Boris’s gang are in it for the man himself. And the gang is growing every day. There are quite enough MPs — ones Osborne has been indifferent to — who will do anything to stop the Chancellor getting the top job.
Boris might also have the edge with Tory donors. There are rumours of several billionaires, unhappy with Cameron, who are prepared to hurl Boris a few gilt-edged bones in return for more red-blooded policies. Major donors love the cocktail of stardust and laughter Boris brings to the party — and you can see their point. How easily and mercilessly Boris would dominate the humour-free zone that is Ed Miliband.
This was supposed to be George Osborne’s big week. On Monday, he set out his plans for a new economic superhub in the north of England; on Wednesday, he and Sajid Javid, the Culture Secretary, made their big speech, announcing extra funding for exciting tech start-ups. But as soon as Boris dropped his bomb, everyone forgot poor George.
There’s talk in the lobby, too, that Boris has sleeper agents in the Commons, though they all deny it. Among them are reputedly Ben Wallace, a former Scots Guards officer, and MP for Wyre and Preston North, who instantly confirmed Boris’s plans with a tweet of his own: ‘Boris to stand.’ Then there’s David Ruffley, who has a useful view of the party.
The agents invite wavering Tory MPs to meet Boris, making up for the years when he couldn’t be bothered to gladhand backbenchers in the Commons tea rooms. Other backbenchers took against Boris last time he was in Parliament because he didn’t run their achingly dull pieces on ‘Whither the euro?’ in The Spectator. The agents now lure them by giving rave reviews of Boris’s speeches. The implication is clear — if you want to be in power, back Boris.
Some agents are acting as spies in the FOG camp. One recently infiltrated an Osborne love-in, where the Chancellor pointed out the stratospheric career paths of his various protégés. Again, the implication was clear — if you want a government job, back George.
If those agents play it right, Boris will be the natural magnet of all disaffected Tories, of which there are many, particularly when lots of senior jobs have necessarily gone to Liberal Democrats. One particularly disaffected Tory MP is Greg Hands, said to be seething at not becoming Chief Whip in the reshuffle. Who knows what bauble Boris could soothe him with?
Tensions have been bristling between Boris and George for some time. In March, some of Boris’s supporters claimed Osborne tried to hobble Boris by encouraging him to return to the Commons and tie his colours to Cameron’s mast. The idea was supposedly that Boris would then share the blame if the Tories lost the election. Boris didn’t take to the plan — according to one source, he called it ‘bullshit’. For all his self-deprecating charm, no one tells Boris what to do.
One MP who seems to be relaxed about Boris’s possible return is David Cameron. A No. 10 spokesman said this week, ‘As the Prime Minister made clear earlier this year, he is very keen for Boris to come back to Parliament. Like any manager, he wants all the stars of his team on the pitch.’ Cameron repeated the stars-on-pitch line on Twitter on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister knows that Boris won’t try to topple him — but he will stand for the leadership if and when Cameron loses an election or a vote of no confidence. Until then, Cameron’s perfectly happy to have him around: he invited Boris and his wife, Marina, to Chequers recently. Insiders say Cameron is even happy to have Boris in his Cabinet after 2016, once the mayoral term is over, if Cameron is still in charge.
At the moment, Boris is saying nothing definitive about his prime ministerial ambitions. But it’s striking how his ambition similes have become more direct over the years. Gone are the days when he compared his chances of becoming Prime Minister to being decapitated by a Frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a disused fridge or reincarnated as an olive. Last year, he said that if the ball came loose from the scrum, he would grab it. And then he likened himself to Cincinnatus, the Roman called from his plough to lead Rome to a historic victory in 458 BC.
The call for Boris has come — and the march on No. 10 has begun.
Harry Mount is the author of The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson(Bloomsbury).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 August 2014