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BoJo, bona fide politician

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, heaves his blustery buffoonery about to great effect, parlaying his public persona's capital into votes.


IT is a muggy Saturday morning one November weekend, and as moisture hangs thick in the air of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a curious profusion of British visitors has sprung up. Tourists and expatriates, they have come in their sundresses, their safari hats and their knee-high socks, sweaty in the armpit and splotchy in the face, having developed a sudden and baffling interest in the great tropical outdoors.

They idly inspect the orchids and hydrangeas, or whatever it is that grows here, but what they are really here for is a chance glimpse of a rare spectacle, a peculiar species thriving outside its natural habitat. They are here for Boris Johnson.

The mayor of London does eventually heave into view, shirt translucent with sweat and late as anything. This is partially because he has been chasing a monitor lizard around (more on this later).

It is not just reptiles that Mr Johnson has time for; he is an inveterate practitioner of the stop-and-chat with any person who charges into his path, to what must be the chagrin of the staffers in charge of his schedule. In the mayor, the "common touch" that is so prized in politicians finds its fully molested potential, so obliging is he with the handshaking, photo-taking and small-talking with the people he meets on this visit.

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This was particularly evident the day before Mr Johnson's Botanic Gardens escapade, when he attended a breakfast meeting organised by Standard Chartered Bank for its clients. In a room full of the most pro-business people on the most pro-business island in the region, the mayor was in his element.

The purpose of his visit to this region being to drum up business for London, Mr Johnson had spiritedly beaten the tom-toms of Fastest-Growing European Economy, Skilled Workforce and Great Infrastructure at the meeting.

"We have more American banks in London than they have in New York, did you know that? We have 350,000 people working in financial services. In the tech sector, which didn't really exist when I became mayor... it's really rather developed in spite of me... we now wipe the floor with the rest of Europe; there are about 150,000 people employed in London in that sector," he told his audience.

"London is going gangbusters at the moment."

There, at Wolfgang Puck's CUT in Marina Bay Sands, he had been at his Business Best. "I am delighted to see that there are British buses plying the streets of Singapore, just as there are, in London, 20 per cent of the buses are actually run by a Singapore company. That's a fantastic sign of the integration between our two markets, which by the way, you would not expect to find between Britain and France... can you imagine us being allowed... to send British buses onto the streets of Paris? Mais non!" he said, to much generous laughter.

Twenty-four hours later, his shirt is gradually parting ways with the inside of his trousers as he makes the humid trek through the Botanic Gardens and takes feverish notes. He is enamoured with it, as with practically everything else he has been shown in Singapore.

"I was on the Tube... I mean the subway, what do you call it? The metro? The MRT! It was very good. It was clean as a whistle. Absolutely, it was impeccable... it had many of the things we aspire to in London, so we have a lot to learn from Singapore," he says, now seated in a room on the second storey of the black-and-white Burkill Hall which occupies a corner of the Botanic Gardens.

The thing that gets him most about the country is the lack of filth. "It's the cleanness, you know? There's no chewing gum on the streets, it's wonderful. In London, every blob of chewing gum costs us 10 pence to remove," he says.

It is tempting to ask him if he is aware of the not-coincidental relationship between the lack of chewing gum on the island and the sparkling nature of the MRT, but there isn't time.

The interview, which starts behind schedule, ultimately lasts 12 minutes and 53 seconds, so just as well the subject of chewing gum is left unmasticated.

In retrospect, the unexpected brevity of the interview was for the best. There is very little that hasn't already been asked of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson: Ex-Journalist, Avid Bicyclist, 2015 MP Candidate, Descendant of King George II and Maybe-British Prime Minister.

In fact, so plumbed have the depths of question-asking been, that one of his followers on Twitter had resorted to asking him: "If you could be any animal, what would you be?"

Mr Johnson's answer on Twitter had been: "Walrus - they not only lie on rocks and belch but make amazing migratory journeys".

His ability for self-deprecation is matched only by his capacity to skewer other parties, with a similar fondness for analogy. He has, in the past, likened the European Union to a "gigantic lobster...with butter sauce".

"The EU, by the very way it works, encourages its participating members to order the lobster at the joint meal because they know that the bill is going to be settled by everybody else - and normally by the Germans," he had said in a video interview with The Telegraph.

Here in Burkill Hall as Mr Johnson's minders hover anxiously, the depths of question-asking are only plumbed further, alas. Ripping through the bottom of the barrel like a Bell X-1 through the sound barrier: If Singapore were an animal, what would it be?

It takes some thought, but Mr Johnson rallies. "I think Singapore would be a... like a beautiful little lizard that I just tried to catch in (the Botanic Gardens)... he let me catch him by the tail," he says.

"Was it a monitor?" he asks one of the hoverers and receives an answer in the affirmative.

"(Singapore) would be a green animal, surprisingly green and friendly, like that lizard. How about that, would that do?" he enquires.

It does, rather. But now a new and vexing avenue of questioning about why he was compelled to grab a reptile by the tail has opened up. It is a path that has to remain untrodden, unfortunately, because tick-tock tick-tock.

It is not just wildlife in Singapore that Mr Johnson has paid attention to, but life itself - the abundance of it all in an already-densely populated area. As Londoners grouse about the City bursting at the seams, so too do Singaporeans here, and this similarity is not lost on the mayor.

"You've got to make the argument for openness and for being receptive in England. There is plenty of room for us to develop. You may not believe it, the population of London is growing the whole time - it's only just reaching the levels it was in 1911 or 1939. So people worry about population growth, but we've been here before," Mr Johnson says.

"I know that in Singapore, there is the question about what is the ultimate size of Singapore, should you go for 6.9 million or whatever the suggestion was. I think it's very difficult for politicians to decide this. These are big, big trends that are ultimately beyond the control of politicians and I'm afraid that the history of civilisation is that whenever populations do go into decline or stagnate, then you have long-term economic stagnation."

Back home, the mayor walks the veritable immigration tightrope. Even though he has called himself "probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he's pro-immigration", Mr Johnson also has to back his Conservative Party colleague, Prime Minister David Cameron, on the EU migration curbs that the latter has been pushing for.

If there is a constant juggling act that Mr Johnson has to keep up between his own views and that of his party's, he is deft about it in a way that keeps his options open, simultaneously sounding definite and vague.

"As John Maynard Keynes said, 'In the long run, we're all dead.' Death is the great regulator of populations, ultimately, and it's always worth bearing in mind," Mr Johnson concludes, on the matter of London's population growth.

Death, however, is not the cheeriest of tickets on which to run when you are gunning to be MP of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the 2015 general election, which Mr Johnson is.

This election could lead to far larger things. Should the Conservative Party lose, Mr Johnson could well be the next party boss and beat an eventual path to the prime minister's seat, pundits imagine.

Yes, Prime Minister?

To wit, Mr Johnson has done many things that can be construed as pre-prime ministerly, including writing a book on Winston Churchill, the most prime ministerial of prime ministers. But, to recall Mr Johnson's animal alter ego discussed on Twitter, the walrus will not let on whether its "amazing migratory journey" is to end at 10 Downing Street. Mr Johnson might be unconventional in every respect, but he is not about to become the first politician in history to campaign for a position by actually campaigning for it.

His response to questions about his political ambitions - both before and during his visit here - had been as unvarying as it had been unconvincing: that his job is to be the mayor of London for the remainder of his term. It is rather fitting, that for all his visibility, the man is a towheaded mystery. In the study of Boris Johnson, the eye scarcely knows on which vignette to settle. Does it linger on the time he chased muggers on his bicycle with an iron bar in hand? Or on a YouTube video of him calling members of the London Assembly "great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies"?

Of course, the observer's gaze is obligatorily raised heavenward briefly circa 2012 when Mr Johnson finds himself stranded on a zipline during the Olympic festivities in London, trousers bunching up around the groin area.

If all this is hard for the impartial to watch, it is even worse for the primarily involved. "I don't watch TV anymore," he says. Why?

"Because I don't have time. I find that you can get all the news from Google. And I try to avoid watching myself because I find it too depressing," he adds with a frankness that dares you to probe further. A sudden mental image of the 2012 zipline incident makes this unnecessary.

It is oft-remarked that this display of buffoonery is a calculated one. It has served him exceedingly well. Against a backdrop of outrageous remarks and questionable sartorial decisions, his pronouncements on serious matters stand out in stark relief.

"The thing that I worry about is the cost of housing for young people growing up in our city and that's something we've just got to sort out and that means building hundreds of thousands more homes," he says.

"That's my number one worry. We're making huge progress on things like clean air, having cleaner vehicles in the city, encouraging more cycling, making the city greener, investing in transport, all that sort of stuff. But the number one issue for people is the cost of housing, as a multiple of people's incomes, people's salaries, (housing prices) are higher than they've ever been."

From the lips of his peers who are likely to be lacking in both colour and chin, these statements would have been piffle. When Mr Johnson utters them, they are remarkable the same way a supermodel using four-syllable words is remarkable. This says more about the mayor's canniness in parlaying his public persona's capital into votes than it does about Gisele Bundchen. He has often polled as Britain's most popular politician, and emerged in an August survey last year as the favourite among Tory voters to succeed Mr Cameron as party leader.

Even in the buttoned-down environment of the StanChart breakfast at Marina Bay Sands, Mr Johnson is treated more as personality than politician, which is ironically every politician's dream.

During the question-and-answer session, the moderator's final query for Mr Johnson is about how he has been voted to be in possession of the "best celebrity hair in all of London". The mayor is good-natured about it without encouraging more follicular talk. "I forgot my comb this morning, if that's what you mean," he says before bringing the session to a close.

At the end of it, members of the audience queue up to have their photo taken with him. One woman has hers taken twice. The man after her engages the mayor in a full-on conversation long after the lightbulb has gone off, in front of a line of waiting people.

When he is eventually whisked away, the crowd at the restaurant's entrance stare after his retreating form as he vanishes around a corner. After awhile, someone says: "Now that is a politician."


Mayor of London

Born June 19, 1964

Read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford

1989 European Community correspondent for The Telegraph

1994 Assistant editor at The Telegraph

1999 Editor of The Spectator

2001 Elected Conservative MP for Henley on Thames

2008 Elected Mayor of London

2011 Published Johnson's Life of London

2012 Re-elected Mayor of London

2014 Published The Churchill Factor