Now that Boris has confirmed that he is looking to stand for parliament: it is becoming more and more apparent that the jester wants to be king. In our latest guest post, James King (co-finance officer for Liberal Youth) provocatively compares Boris with another politician with a gift for humour: Lembit Opik.
This post is inspired by a comment which Mark Mills, my friend and the owner of this blog, made on Facebook a few days ago. In relation to an article announcing Boris Johnson’s search for a safe Tory seat in which to stand 2015, he said:
“I think this says quite a bit how the Lib Dem grassroots have grown up, while the Tories have done the opposite. We’ve disowned Lembit, while they are looking to their equivalent as their saviour.”
This got me thinking about the similarities between Lembit Öpik and Boris Johnson. For one thing, they are both known to the public by their first names, a strange attribute for a politician. For another, they both project an appeal of humorous eccentricity with an appeal that’s less about what they believe or do in politics but what they are. They are also both known for their complicated romantic lives. Yet, while Boris looks a credible Tory leader and Prime Minister, Lembit is now on the scrapheap. His suggesting an idea is enough to discredit it in the eyes of most Lib Dem activists, and he came last in the selection for Mayor of London two years ago, with 8.2% of the vote. I don’t want to rub it in any further, but recently I saw him described by a local newspaper as a ‘former celebrity’. Ouch.
As Mark suggests, however, it was not always so, and I believe that the rise of Boris Johnson was not inevitable, and indeed that Lembit Öpik might instead be dominating the headlines at the moment. If you cast your mind back to 2004, it was in fact the Member for Montgomeryshire who looked like he might go furthest in politics. He was Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Shadow Minister for Wales and Northern Ireland. Some talked of him as a possible future leader. True, he only got 29% in the Presidential contest that year, but that was running against Simon Hughes, a perennial party favourite.
Boris’s trajectory, on the other hand, seem to point downwards. Having briefly held portfolios as Shadow Minister of the Arts and Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party (the latter an appointed position), he was fired by Michael Howard in November of that year for lying about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. The previous month, he had approved, in the aftermath of the brutal murder of a Liverpudlian contractor by Iraqi jihadis, an offensive diatribe against the people of Liverpool on the editorial page of the Spectator, and as a result had to go on an ‘apology tour’ to the city. More generally, as this incident demonstrates, he appeared to be only semi-devoted to politics. In October of 2004 (he had quite a busy autumn), he published a quixotic comedy novel titled Seventy-Two Virgins. Things could have gone so differently for both men.
Of course, they didn’t. Boris Johnson quit The Spectator and then successfully ran for Mayor of London in 2008, whereas Lembit’s dalliances with Cheeky Girls and segways led only to his ejection from Parliament and further ignominy beyond. Why did this occur? One obvious answer is that Boris carefully controls his buffoonish persona for political gain, whereas Lembit appears driven by the inner dynamo of his eccentric personality. Certainly, post-2005 Boris Johnson is a lot more disciplined, undoubtedly due to his strong ambition.
I think, however, that there’s more to it than that. It helps that Boris has held an office where he has presided over the spending of large amounts of government money, including a massive fortnight-long sports-themed party a couple of summers ago, during a period of general austerity. It is also an office which is uniquely placed to make him popular: fascinating to the London-based media, with few obvious responsibilities but much scope for his outsize character. It also helps that Boris is well-connected with the press, and that he’s a Conservative and not a Liberal Democrat. One can’t veer too far from the norm in the Lib Dems, or the press will denounce you as a muesli-drooling fruitcake, whereas an Eton-educated Tory can play the English eccentric ad nauseam.
But I think that there’s much to what I quoted Mark as saying at the beginning of this article (and that isn’t just because he agreed to host me…). The Tories crave popularity and, seeing Boris’ success in a multicultural, Labour-leaning city, wish to tap into his appeal, which I think they do not fully understand. More than that, though, they love his UKIP-esque iconoclasm against ‘politics as usual’. The Liberal Democrats also crave popularity, but because of their spell in government, and perhaps in reaction to Nigel Farage’s populism, they also disdain frivolity and emphasise competence and moderation.
In the differing fates of Lembit Öpik and Boris Johnson, we can see, in a nutshell, the dramatic and permanent changes which Coalition has wrought upon the two parties. We can only hope that, for the good of the country, the Tory Party does not continue on this self-indulgent but ultimately destructive path.
I would echo these points. The two men are similar not just in terms of their personalities and styles of communication but also their libertarian politics. Also, beware hindsight making it seem like a given that Boris was always a more serious contender than Lembit. I heard both of them speak a number of times back when they were MPs. Clearly they both used humour an awful lot (perhaps too much). However, Lembit never seemed confused or bumbling, while Boris never seemed anything else.
The London Mayoralty may have bestowed on Boris credibility but undeservedly so. The Olympics were Ken’s triumph not his and even his beloved bike scheme is in financial trouble. And beneath his glib charm lurks what Eddie Mair dubbed “a nasty piece of work.”
The Tories really ought to consider whether they want such a man leading them. It would be ironic if in their desperate pursuit of popularity, they lumbered themselves with a leader who voters might soon come to regard much as they already do Lembit.