On a quiet street in Hampstead, an affluent north London neighborhood, Mayor Boris Johnson stops near roadworks to have his photo taken with the local right-of-centre Conservative parliamentary candidate. The pair are on a campaign trail walkabout just ahead of the United Kingdom’s general election on May 7 and as passersby look on, many snap their own photos on smart phones, excited to catch a glimpse of Johnson’s famous shock of disheveled blond hair in the flesh.
Suddenly, the quiet is broken as a middle-aged man in jogging shorts races by, shouting, “Buller! Buller! Buller!” The chant is a well-known greeting between members, past and present, of the notorious Bullingdon Club, an exclusive drinking club at Oxford University, known for its members’ antics, such as trashing bars and restaurants while wearing tuxes. (The film The Riot Club is based on the club.) Johnson, now 50, was once a member along with David Cameron, the Prime Minister (see this club photograph of the pair).
Seemingly flummoxed, Johnson starts moving down the road, flanked by journalists. Though Johnson’s privileged background is well documented — although born on the Upper East Side in New York, he attended Eton, the exclusive English secondary school and studied at Oxford — it doesn’t tend to jive with his Everyman popularity. The people shaking his hand in Hampstead have variously described him as “a character,” “brilliant” and “a laugh.” It’s that largely populist appeal has seen Johnson win not one, but two London mayoral elections — despite the city’s large number of left-of-centre Labour Party supporters.
As Johnson continues, he’s asked if he recognizes the running man from his time at the club. Johnson deflects with his usual humor: “No! I think he was actually saying, ‘Bollard, bollard, bollard.’” He gestures to the bollards by the roadworks he’s quickly leaving behind and charges over to two men standing on a sidewalk nearby, to shake hands and take photos.
It’s a minor snag in a campaign that has otherwise been, in neighborhoods across London, the Boris Show, complete with backslaps, selfies and plenty of jokes (mostly at the expense of Labour leader Ed Miliband). There is an occasional person who chastises him for this or that policy, but the Mayor seems to brush it off easily enough. Besides, even more people tell him they “love” him. Though Johnson is running for his own parliamentary seat in a safe Conservative constituency in West London, he’s also been using his considerable celebrity to help boost Conservative candidates running for marginal seats.
He’s not only put in appearances in Uxbridge and South Ruislip and Hampstead, but also Finchley, Golders Green, and South Thanet, Kent, in recent weeks. With the general election looming on Thursday — and the Conservatives still neck and neck with the opposition Labour party in the polls — Johnson’s extensive campaign circuit could be just the jolt of life his party needs.
He’ll likely be rewarded for his hard work. There have long been whispers that Johnson had his eye on leading the Conservative Party — and, one day, the country — but now those whispers have morphed into an open conversation, supported by the fact that he’s returning to Westminster (he served as an opposition MP from 2001 to 2008). Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP, told the Guardian newspaper in April, “We need him to electrify the campaign. We need people to know if they vote Conservative, Boris is the future leader.”
When asked directly about becoming leader of his party, Johnson tends to brush off the suggestion with a joke. But while he is quick to both prop up the Conservatives fighting for seats across London and criticize the leaders of rival parties, Johnson doesn’t often mention Cameron, the Prime Minister and current Conservative leader. For his part, Cameron has publicly portrayed Johnson not a rival or threat to his job, but as one of his party’s “star players.”
Yet while mayor of London is one of the U.K.’s most prominent political positions, there are some who doubt whether Johnson’s antics (such as getting stuck on a zip wire in 2012) — which endear him to the public now — would go down as well if he were, say, the head of government. A YouGov poll conducted last year found that while 49 percent of respondents found Johnson “charismatic,” only 20 percent considered him “honest” and a mere 17 percent believed he was “in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.” Even more telling: 58 percent agreed that “he was not serious enough to be trusted with big national decisions.”
In Hampstead, a well-dressed elderly woman, who declines to give her name, gazes on at Johnson as he chats with people at a coffee shop and says that while she very much likes him as Mayor, she can’t imagine him as a party leader. “He’s a bit too happy-go-lucky,” she concludes.
Others have criticized Johnson for thinking he could juggle the duties required of an MP on top of his position as Mayor, as he plans to see out his term, which ends in 2016 and his work as a weekly columnist for the British right-of-center paper The Daily Telegraph. When Johnson failed to turn up to the third and final public meeting for his constituency, a week and a half before the election, Labour candidate Chris Summers told the audience that if the Mayor won, he’d be a “part-time MP” who “isn’t even familiar with the local issues.” Yet it’s likely that Johnson doesn’t need to put in large amounts of face-time in the constituency, as the area has elected a Tory candidate since the 1970s.
For his part, Johnson seems confident he can do it all: champion other Tories, win a seat at Westminister and continue to serve as London’s largely lovable Mayor. In Hampstead, when a woman asks him what he’s doing in the neighborhood, Johnson replies easily, “I’m everywhere.”