When Eddie Mair asked Boris Johnson on the BBC's Sunday morning sofa whether he nurtured an ambition to become prime minister, the London mayor prevaricated, as he so often does about policy, adultery and other facets of his colourful life.
By co-operating with Michael Cockerell's latest TV biography and persuading his family to do so too, he confirmed the blindingly obvious: yes, of course, but only as a stepping stone to becoming king of the world.
But will this PR offensive promote his hopes of succeeding David Cameron – "Cameron Minor", as Johnson knew him at Eton – or hinder them? The answer should be an emphatic thumbs down. Voters are vaguely aware that clever Boris lets people down, cheats and screws around. But it may still be a shock to hear him on tape saying: "OK Dari, I'll do it" after his old friend Darius Guppy, a convicted diamond fraudster, asks for help in having a fellow journalist beaten up.
Yet the normal rules of behaviour have never applied to Johnson, as witnesses repeatedly note in Cockerell's hour-long film. Johnson himself clearly believes it. Since childhood he has been highly competitive, charismatic and funny, bent on becoming, as his sister Rachel recalls him saying, "world king". After all, if Cameron who didn't even read Classics at Oxford (but got the first that eluded Boris) can be PM, Johnson must do better.
The secret was defined long ago by Ann Widdecombe who observed that Johnson was the only current Tory who cheered up Tories in hard times. He reaches beyond the tribe and makes Labour people laugh, twice-beaten Ken Livingstone tells Cockerell. But is it enough? Boris is so chaotic, says ex-editor Max Hastings; our Berlusconi, says Private Eye's Ian Hislop; a scoundrel, says ex-boss Conrad Black. His finger on the nuclear button would frighten people, says his own spin doctor.
Oozing dynastic ambition, dad Stanley (a chip off the young block) says the rules should be bent to let his boy become an MP again before his mayoral term ends in 2016, just in case "Cam Mi" falters. Would the Tories be desperate enough for a winner to trust such a charming chameleon, such a chancer? A Disraeli or Churchill occasionally beats the iron law of political caution.
But between them Cockerell and Eddie Mair have exposed the mayor's achilles heel. It is that he needs to be liked. Thus Johnson handled Cockerell's awkward but civil questions competently enough, yet fell apart haplessly when Mair asked similar questions with scorn on Sunday. He crumpled when facing hostile crowds after the London riots. To Livingstone's amazement, Johnson felt the need to placate him too after their campaign spat. "A breathtaking weakness," Livingstone called it. Plenty of Tories sense weakness beneath the bravura. They will take comfort from the past 24 hours. The heir apparent is not yet world king.
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