If it had happened to any other politician, it would have constituted a horrible embarrassment.
But when Boris Johnson got stuck on a zip wire halfway across a park on Wednesday, it was just the latest public relations triumph for the mayor of London. With his suit trousers ruched up around his calves and forlornly flapping a Union flag in either hand, he dangled in the air calling for “A rope! Get me a ladder!” to hoots of laughter from the delighted crowd below.
London’s Conservative mayor, a former – and no doubt future – Member of Parliament has long been enjoyed in Britain for his eccentricity and wit. He has also been reviled for his bumbling manner and low-level xenophobic gaffes.
But his enthusiastic cheerleading of the London Games has earned him legions of fans among the British public, and, it seems, members of his own party.
“I saw him dangling from that wire and thought, that’s not very statesmanlike,” says Elizabeth Williams, a housewife from near Leicester, central England. “But you can’t help liking him, can you?”
A new poll of Conservative Party activists, published this week, reveals that Mr. Johnson is the party's favorite to replace Prime Minister David Cameron as leader of the Tories. He came in a little ahead of foreign minister William Hague and a long way ahead of Chancellor George Osborne, who was once considered the natural replacement for Mr. Cameron.
The poll’s findings will be taken seriously by strategists for the party, which has been bruised in recent weeks by a catalogue of woes, from the still depressed economy to its troubled relationship with its coalition partners the Liberal Democrats.
Boris Johnson, a former editor of the Spectator magazine, became a Tory MP in 2001 and was appointed as a shadow minister soon after. He resigned as an MP when he was voted in as mayor of London in 2008, a position he won again this year.
In a city that tends to vote to the left, his success in the mayoral elections was an indication of his personal appeal. But he was still regarded by many senior Tories as an unlikely candidate to lead their party.
That may now be changing. If he does become leader of the Conservatives, commentators will look back on the Olympics as a defining moment for Johnson.
He became established as the poster boy for the Games when he reacted to Mitt Romney’s criticism of Britain’s preparation for the Olympics with a rallying speech in Hyde Park. “Are we ready? Yes we are!” he yelled, to refrains from the crowd of 60,000.
For the public, who had begun to tire of Olympics officiousness, his irreverence came as a tonic. The media leapt on every joke he has made since. And they have come thick and fast.
When the Olympic flame arrived at the Tower of London just before the Games kicked off, Johnson observed, “As Henry VII discovered with at least two of his wives, this is the perfect place to bring an old flame.” As Britain’s Olympics cynicism was overlaid by elation as the opening ceremony drew near, he said, “The Geiger Counter of Olympomania is going to go zoink”.
A column in the Daily Telegraph newspaper in which he described female players of beach volleyball as “glistening like wet otters,” was quoted repeatedly in the media and outside it.
Many commentators are now mulling on Johnson’s more serious politics as a result. On some issues, they point out, the mayor of London is straightforwardly right wing. He wants to lower taxes, is opposed to interference in Britain’s affairs by Europe, and is a passionate defender of elite private schools.
But he is also a believer in gay rights and multiculturalism, calling himself a “one-man melting pot.” Johnson’s great grandfather was the Turkish writer and politician Ali Kemal Bey and Johnson was born in New York City.
“He possesses the wisdom to have identified the things that Tories can change about modern Britain and the things we cannot,” wrote Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential Conservative Home website, in a blog post.
In many ways, he went on, “ … he’s a traditional all blue Tory but he’s also so much more than that. He’s supported an amnesty for immigrants, gay rights, a living wage for London’s low-paid and an Olympics-sized investment in infrastructure. Whatever his personal future he can teach the Conservatives a lot about getting the right attitude to modern Britain and to the state.”
As London’s mayor, Johnson is noted for several successes, from banning alcohol on public transport to introducing a network of bikes for hire known as “Boris bikes.”
Concerns among party members will persist, however, about whether Johnson is serious enough to lead his party and the country.
Though he has reined back the gaffes, “Boris Says Sorry” was until recently a familiar headline in UK newspapers. He has had to apologize for claiming that the city of Portsmouth was “too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement, and Labour MPs” and for describing the queen being greeted in Commonwealth countries by “flag-waving piccaninnies [a racist insult]” among many other errors of judgment.
At stumps in 2001 he may have offended as many people as he has amused with his promise that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3 [a car model].”
His private life has also caused some problems. In 2004 he was sacked as a shadow minister and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party for lying over an extra-marital affair, one of a number that have been reported in the media.
Observers also point out that the position of mayor during the Olympics is hardly comparable to being prime minister or chancellor running the country. For diplomatic reasons, neither of them would have been able to laugh at Mr. Romney the way he did, or entertain a crowd while dangling in the air on a weekday.
But there is little question that Johnson’s ability to make a connection with people for whom politics has little appeal is a rare gift, and one his party will not want to squander.