When the people of London re-elect the Conservative Boris Johnson as their mayor on May 3, as is now almost certain, they will inadvertently be voting for a brand of politics that is so new to Britain that few commentators, not even Boris himself, have yet recognized it. It’s not compassionate conservatism of the George W. variety. It’s not responsible conservatism of the David Cameron sort. What Boris unknowingly represents is cool conservatism, and it’s taken our surprised capital by storm.
American Republicans are used to their leaders out-cooling their Democratic rivals. Think Bush versus Kerry and Gore, or Reagan versus Carter and Mondale. But in Britain the reverse is true. The left has out-cooled the right for an astonishing six decades. You have to go back to the 1950s to find Conservative leaders (Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan) with more charisma than their Labour opponents. The four Conservative prime ministers that followed (Home, Heath, Thatcher, and Major) rose to the top despite conceding a coolness deficit to their main Labour rivals. Tony Blair, who politically demolished John Major, even invented “cool Britannia.”
This succession of uncool Conservative leaders, often backed up by charismatically-challenged foot soldiers, is one of the many reasons it has become so culturally unacceptable to admit to being conservative in Britain. Most British people have conservative instincts on issues like the economy, crime, welfare and family values, so, by rights, the Conservative Party shouldn’t lose a national election. But it has lost, frequently, in large part because that same conservative electorate has tended publicly to disown the party that espouses conservative policies. Even the electorally attractive David Cameron only scraped into Downing Street two years ago after an election that he should have won by a landslide. It just isn’t cool to be conservative.
Boris Johnson is the massive exception. He is not only cool but hilarious. His shock of unruly blond hair looks like a wig chosen and fitted by a toddler. He admitted that he once tried to snort cocaine, but sneezed and failed (beat that, Bill Clinton). He has the kind of face, even at rest, that makes people giggle. He could quite easily be a game-show host — in fact he’s occasionally been the guest host on Britain’s leading TV satirical news quiz, and it’s compulsive viewing. At last count, a YouTube video of him tripping himself up then inadvertently rugby tackling an astonished opponent in a celebrity soccer match between England and Germany has attracted half a million hits and thousands of delighted comments.
Boris is a bizarre combination of posh scholarliness, gaffes (including a very public extra-marital affair that would be career-ending for ordinary mortals, but only strengthened his appeal), bumbling ineptitude, and startling political insight and ambition. Beneath it all he’s a conservative to his fingertips. He edited the UK version of The Spectator with great panache between 1999 and 2005 and now stands a good chance of succeeding Cameron as Conservative leader, when the time comes.
Just before the last mayoral election, in 2008, I saw Boris at a hustings in London in front of a couple of thousand people. He was in his mid-40s, and very overweight, so I was astonished to see young women whooping and shrieking with delight, Beatles-like, as he came into the room. Boris is so cool I don’t think he noticed.
His voter appeal is like no other. If the Conservatives should never lose Britain, then by the same token Boris has little right to win London. The capital is, by and large, a Labour city, with over half of Londoners saying that their natural sympathies lie with that party. This is the one city in Britain where it’s possible to be anything, do anything, sleep with anything. That Boris has not only won in London, but looks like doing so again is nothing short of political magic.
Many Conservative supporters are desperately hoping that their party take note. They have been driven to distraction and despair, for the past quarter century, by its political ineptitude. This has been lapped up with glee by the self-styled “progressives,” led by Tony Blair, who have successfully shoe-horned a liberal agenda onto an instinctively conservative electorate, and governed for 13 years out of the last 15. Even now, Cameron has to share power in a coalition government with some of his liberal opponents.
And yet in this year of elections, not least in America, Boris Johnson has demonstrated something vitally important to conservatives everywhere. If you want to win, even against the odds, if you want to drive back the liberals and progressives and re-establish conservatism as a dominant political force, you need to pick your leaders with great care.
In short, make sure that your leader is the coolest dude on the block.
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