Deep underground in a RAF command bunker, Boris Johnson this week provided a glimpse into the possible future leadership of Britain that may chill as many as it cheers.
Before a joint appearance on Wednesday in London with David Cameron which will mark the London mayor’s full weaponisation in the Tory election campaign, Johnson sank into Winston Churchill’s leather chair overseeing a huge war map, pretended he was on a hotline to President Roosevelt and bellowed: “Come on, stop pussyfooting around.”
The Conservative candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip was in the seat Churchill occupied in August 1940 as air force chiefs masterminded the Battle of Britain against Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The photo opportunity at RAF Uxbridge was part of the Conservative strategy of rolling out Johnson to energise a campaign that otherwise loyal observers such as Margaret Thatcher’s former communications guru Lord Bell have decried as “dreadful, risk averse and boring”.
Johnson’s perceived likeability, deft touch with ordinary people and impression of capability in a crisis have led to voters making him clear favourite to succeed Cameron as party leader and potential prime minister – ahead of Theresa May and George Osborne, according to a YouGov poll last month.
His backers in the party, including Nadine Dorries, are explicit about how voters should read Johnson’s forthcoming appearances: vote Conservative, get Boris.
Johnson will join Cameron at a venue in south-west London on Wednesday and he is expected to campaign in 12 constituencies in the capital, making three rounds in each before polling day. This week, he has already been in Uxbridge, Finchley and Hendon. On Tuesday, he was in South Thanet in Kent taking the fight to the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage. Twickenham, Ilford, Croydon and Kilburn are all in his sights.
Given the mobs of starstruck voters his canvassing appearances create, it is a strategy that could help the Tories and provide him with a head start for a leadership challenge.
“I decided to back him when I was on a station platform in Birmingham and I heard people chanting his name as he got off the train,” said Dorries. “People were cheering him, patting him on the back and this was in Birmingham, not London. I thought: ‘Wow, his reach is amazing’. We need him to electrify the campaign. We need people to know if they vote Conservative, Boris is the future leader.”
She said it was indisputable that if Cameron lost office, Johnson would run for the party leadership.
Already, there are signs of an emerging power base. Two of Johnson’s closest City Hall aides, deputy mayors Kit Malthouse and Victoria Borwick, have stood down to fight for safe seats to join Johnson in parliament. James Cleverley, the chairman of the London Fire Authority, is standing, too, in Braintree.
Bell said he would vote for Johnson over Osborne and May and praised him as a “solid Thatcherite”.
“I like the sheer celebrity status he engenders,” Bell said. “The attention he gets at events is like they used to give when Margaret walked around. Nobody applauds when George walks into a room.”
But the leadership is not something Johnson wants to talk about. In the RAF bunker, the Guardian asked if he could imagine himself running the show. He blanched and burbled that the only clamour was for funds to preserve RAF Uxbridge. But he cannot stop casting himself as Churchill’s heir. He has written a book about Churchill and declared that the election is a “battle for Britain”; here he was posing alongside a replica second world war Hurricane fighter plane.
In 2013, he compared the party leadership to a rugby ball saying that “if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum … it would be a great thing to have a crack at”. Expanding the metaphor,he said he was now “bound in, packed down”.
“The ball is not going to come loose; it is going to be grounded in a gigantic surging push-over try and David Cameron is going to be exerting the requisite downward pressure on the ball.”
Johnson’s assessment of the campaign so far is nuanced rather than full-throated. “I am encouraged by conversations I have had by feeling on the street,” he said. “It reminds me very much of the second election I fought in 2012 as mayor [during which the polls showed Labour in the lead for substantial periods]. There is a lot of support, but it is tight.
“I think that in the last 10 days of the campaign, people will really focus and it’s in the final furlong that people really change places,” he said. “We are starting to see people focus on what this election is all about. It is about two approaches to managing the UK economy.”
The impact of Johnson’s public appearances is unmatched. Sixty seconds after he stepped out of Uxbridge station on Monday morning, he was thronged by voters. But there is a peculiar silence at the heart of the encounters. Johnson introduces himself, the voter looks at him, starstruck, and almost always asks for a smartphone photo. Hardly anyone asks about policy but he does attract all sorts: a student from Brunel University, a lady clutching a Greggs pasty, a chef, a choreographer, a taxi driver.
“I normally vote Labour,” said John Cleary, a retired security guard. “But he’s a good man and he’s able to speak his mind. You don’t want people just running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.”
A youth in sportswear poses for a picture with Johnson, his hand across his face in an exaggerated hip-hop gesture.“It’s trill,” he explains after. “True and real.”
Within minutes, Johnson has gone through his fistful of leaflets and it is on to his stickers as he ploughs into the shopping centre.
He runs aground when he asks a middle-aged woman for her vote and she reveals she normally votes Conservative but “I want a change”.
“You are as charming as you like,” she tells him. “But I am a psychotherapist and I can see right through you.”
After so much love-bombing, the mayor doesn’t seem to know how to react and is keen to move on. He quickly poses with a toy bulldog on rollerskates in union flag attire inside the Build-A-Bear shop and, back on comfortable ground, he sips a scorching thimble of green tea from the Chaoji stand selling a “lose weight, feel great” elixir .
“It’s delicious, it’s nectar,” he burbles. It’s not. It smells fungal.
Lynda Scott-Priestley, 70, receives her sticker and promises her vote, but confides after Johnson is gone that he should not become party leader.
“He’s too expressive,” she said. “He is trying to appeal to too many people and he comes across as not serious enough for prime minister.”
How high should he go then? Foreign secretary, dealing with international crises?
She winced. “I could see him doing education.”
This article was written by Robert Booth, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st April 2015 19.02 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010