24 August 2008
We should treasure Boris Johnson, we really should.
This isn't about politics, or perceptions of class; it's purely about personality. Boris, a chap who I always feel I can call by his first name, has become one of those larger-than-life pieces of human charisma who I find it almost impossible to criticise.
This week, his appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? was screened. It was touching, revealing and hysterical, all at once. From Boris arguing with an uppity Turkish historian about his great-grandfather's revolutionary conscience, through to his near-tears at hearing of the same man's public execution, and ultimately finding out he was descended, albeit via an illegitimacy or two, from George II, it was a fantastic and open hour of television.
It showcased what we've always interpreted about Boris; the man is as much a buffoon as he is an intellect. The buffoonishness is what we see as his public outer layer; it has made him a political star and is a favourite Tory to many who detest the Tories. But I've always felt that the buffoonishness is a natural screen which makes him relatable. Boris is aware that occasionally being slightly chumpish has helped him make his mark. He has been his own publicist, his own spin-doctor and his own analyst.
Today he was in Beijing, walking to the main stage at the closing ceremony to accept the Olympic flag from the Mayor of Beijing. Boris was smiling, offering enthusiastic thumbs-up to the crowd and the British team as he sauntered up the carpet. His jacket was unbuttoned, his tie was skewiff, his hair combed but still that slightly unkempt miscellany of blonde. Yet for all the mock furore the purists will claim at such slipshod attire, this is what Boris is. He kept putting his hands in his jacket pockets, then realising where he was and removing them again - possibly one of those auto-nervous actions like Prince Charles' habit of clutching his cuffs whenever caught in a sticky situation.
I loved the speech. He may have put out a few Cantonese noses by claiming ping pong was British but he's right - wiff waff was indeed invented on the dining tables of Britain, ask Stephen Fry. Boris used the word 'fantabulous' in his speech too. Can you imagine charmless dullards like Francis Maude or David Miliband doing that? He has said he is determined that the Olympics will not go beyond budget, and I believe him. I wouldn't believe any other politician, irrespective of party shade, other than him on an issue like that.
I'm not a Londoner so I don't know how he'll be on a daily basis for those he now represents. I did resent rags like the Guardian or the truly diabolical Express telling the whole country why Boris would be bad/good for London, as a sizeable number of people didn't, rightly, give a toss. I equally resent those politicians discussing the London election in other areas of the country and the general national exposure it got. But now he's in, he becomes the story in a way Ken Livingstone never would and the country may just benefit.
Boris isn't flawless, of course. He seems to notice bandwagons a little too easily and now he has real power, he should be more confident in his outward appearance. He also needed to be stronger at the Spectator - keeping Taki on forever was never wise, and although it was noble, he should have hauled Simon Heffer over the coals over that despicable anti-Liverpool editorial rather than taking the brunt of it himself, as editor, irrespective of his orders from Michael Howard. But at least he's real, even if he doesn't represent most people's reality. Not many of us are a New York born, Eton educated Tory socialite with royal ancestry, Turkish revolutionary blood, a degree in Greats, a successful magazine editorship and a history of being sacked for falsifying quotes and getting his own name wrong on television. But if we were, I suspect we'd quite like to have done it the way he has.
You don't have to vote Boris. But I think he's worth appreciating.