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Boris Johnson: The Clown Prince

5 minute read

As resolutions go, this one seems deceptively modest. “My ambition is to exterminate the word ‘bumbling’ from the vocabulary of profilers,” says Boris Johnson, the Tory candidate to become mayor of London. “There’s going to be a massive stamping down on the bumbling. Much less bumbling.” A quick search on Google reveals the scale of the problem: a combination of the words Boris Johnson and bumbling produces more than 27,600 results. Sample sentence: “Everyone keeps telling me Boris Johnson’s bumbling idiot routine is just that — a routine. I’m not so sure.”

Many Britons are familiar with that routine, which Johnson has honed in parliament as MP for the affluent constituency of Henley in southeastern England and as the occasional presenter of a TV game show. Readers not yet acquainted with his signature style will get a flavor of it from this verbatim response to TIME’s question about whether he considers himself a conviction politician. (For full impact, the passage must be declaimed in the poshest of English accents.) “I certainly have a range of convictions. Not for anything serious. God. I don’t have convictions actually by the way. No, no, no. Sorry, I don’t have any convictions in a court of law, apart from speeding when I was very young. But I have plenty of political convictions. Can you rescue me? God.” Johnson is a natural comedian from his feet (often in his mouth) to the seemingly electrified tips of his abundant white-blond hair. The question that plagues his party leaders is whether this beguiling wit will propel him to political success or risible failure.

Not everyone gets the joke. California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, waiting to address the Tory party conference by video link in September, watched in bewilderment as Johnson warmed up the crowd with a speech littered with characteristic digressions. “He’s fumbling all over the place,” hissed the Governator, unaware that his microphone was switched on. Wags in Westminster have since dubbed Johnson “the Fumbulator.” He responds, with mock humility: “A man not famed for his eloquence found fault with my delivery and general mastery of public speaking. And these are things I obviously have to overcome.”

The bigger hurdle for Johnson is to prove that he can do deep as well as droll. In a revealing jest about his party’s candidate for mayor, Tory leader David Cameron recently remarked: “Inside Boris there is a serious, ambitious politician fighting to get out.” The London election next May will pit Johnson against another colorful maverick, the incumbent Ken Livingstone, a wily and resilient left-winger who has introduced tolls for cars entering central London and is now promising to boost the capital’s stock of affordable housing. Johnson has not yet revealed his own manifesto, but speaks of increased “financial rigor” and an admiration for the education policies of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He sums up his political philosophy in a pithy phrase: “less bossiness, more incentives,” explaining, “I’m a libertarian. I think people should get on and run their lives as far as possible independently of bossiness and intrusion of all kinds.”

His father, Stanley Johnson, an environmentalist and former Member of the European Parliament, calls this “the fight against crooks and nannies looking into nooks and crannies.” Like son, like father. Both Johnsons make a humor pit stop every few minutes. But, says Johnson senior, beneath the comic exterior, his son has “a solid, philosophical outlook” and a “real, substantial core of belief.”

Boris, a scholarship boy and avid sportsman at the exclusive boarding school Eton, is academically gifted. But his reports there worried that he might squander his huge potential by spreading himself too thin. It’s a habit he’s maintained in overlapping careers as a journalist, novelist, poet, classical historian, media personality and politician. “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” says Johnson, who became editor of the venerable U.K. political magazine the Spectator in 1999 and swiftly reneged on a promise to Conrad Black, its proprietor at the time, not to seek a parliamentary seat. Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson later interviewed Black, now something of a byword for double-dealing after his conviction this summer for criminal fraud. Black described his former employee as “ineffably duplicitous.”

Yet it’s Johnson’s compulsive honesty that’s more likely to torpedo his quest for high office. He says what he’s thinking, even when it’s shockingly, hilariously off-message. He recently incurred the wrath of Conservative colleagues by urging support for Hillary Clinton on the premise of Vote Hillary, Get Bill. He explains that he was trying to make a serious point about America’s damaged standing in the world, adding: “Things come into my head that I find simply impossible not to say and then all sorts of chaos breaks out. But I think it’s much better that way than endlessly pre-rehearsing, sanitizing, homogenizing, pasteurizing everything you say to the point of macrobiotic extinction.” Some voters will be charmed by such candor; others will question his suitability to speak for the nation’s capital. But win or lose, Johnson is already performing a public service by making Britons laugh.

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