David Cameron's main rival? Boris Johnson.

London’s eccentric mayor may yet challenge Cameron for the Tory leadership

Who’s that waiting in the wings?

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Earlier this month, when British Prime Minister David Cameron used his veto against changing the European Union’s legal framework treaty to help ailing eurozone nations, the hardline Eurosceptic contingent of his party rejoiced. But it was the reaction of Boris Johnson, mayor of London and one of the most vocal Tory critics of European integration, that garnered the most national attention.

In a BBC radio interview, Johnson approvingly declared the prime minister had “played a blinder”—skilfully performed a move—in refusing to join the treaty. Secretly, however, one can’t help but suspect that Johnson, who is also a popular columnist with the Telegraph and the former MP for Henley, was ever so slightly put out. It’s not that the mayor privately disagrees with Cameron’s stubborn isolationist stance (far from it). But by using Britain’s veto, the PM has effectively pushed Johnson’s own much-speculated-on leadership ambitions to the back burner, where they will be forced to languish for the next little while (but not, it is safe to assume, forever).

The notion that a shambolic city politician with a long history of infidelities and verbal gaffes could represent the biggest threat to Cameron’s leadership might seem laughable to the outside world—but here in Britain it’s accepted fact. The two men have known each other since their school days—first as boarding students at Eton, where Johnson was a King’s Scholar and Cameron a fee-paying boy from an upper-class family, and later at Oxford, where both became members of the legendarily exclusive (and champagne-soaked) Bullingdon Club. And while in the past Johnson strenuously insisted he has no interest in ascending to the prime minister’s office, his denials are not given much credence at home.

For good reason. In 2004, he also dismissed allegations he’d had an extramarital affair with Petronella Wyatt, a staffer at The Spectator magazine, of which he was then editor, by calling the rumour “complete balderdash . . . an inverted pyramid of piffle.” The affair, which would not be Johnson’s last (more recently he’s believed to have fathered a love child with art consultant Helen Macintyre), was subsequently well-documented in the press.

Messy personal life aside, Johnson’s prospects are looking good. He is popular with the London electorate and looks positioned to win his pre-Olympic re-election bid against Ken Livingstone in 2012. In recent months, Johnson has been markedly less coy about what many onlookers believe is a deep and burning long-term ambition to get back into national politics. In an interview with Prospect magazine in September, he allowed that if returned to office he will not run again for a third term. When asked if he might serve as both an MP and mayor simultaneously, Johnson did not comment “but gave a low laugh.”

In the fall, The Spectator fuelled further speculation by running a cover piece by Toby Young (another Oxford chum of Johnson’s) entitled, “Plan B: How Boris Johnson will become Tory leader.” In it, Young proudly recounted how, back in 2003, he made a £15,000 bet with Nigella Lawson that Johnson would be leader within a decade and half. Eight years on he seemed quite confident that, despite all the variables in play, there was a good chance Lawson would have to pay up. Young’s take on Johnson—a politician who can often seem as bumbling and scattered as he is canny and witty—is that he should not be underestimated. “Beneath the Wodehousian bonhomie lurks a middle-class scholarship boy whose posh schoolmates never allowed him to forget the family’s roots as Turkish immigrants. This is where his extraordinary drive comes from. It is a combination of wanting to fit in—to outdo his schoolboy rivals in Britishness—and wanting to rub their faces in the mud. David William Donald Cameron represents precisely the type of supercilious blueblood Boris must triumph over in order to prove himself.”

As Young points out, Johnson has positioned himself to the right of Cameron on several key issues, including bankers’ bonuses (he supports them, though not “repugnant” huge ones), police cuts (he’s against them), and the prospect of a referendum on EU treaty changes. A politician who likes to quote ancient Greek, Johnson has, against all odds, managed to convey the common touch Cameron most sorely lacks. And in addition to effectively courting his party’s far-right backbench grassroots, he has also managed to successfully position himself as a kind of lovable English mascot: the hopeless eccentric who still manages to be effortlessly himself.

If his coalition government holds, Cameron will face the electorate in 2015. Earlier this month, before it was clear which way the PM would swing on changing the EU treaty, Johnson came out guns blazing against the fight to save the European single currency. European leaders including Cameron, he contended, were “in danger of saving the cancer and not the patient.” It was a show of backbiting bravado many in Britain believe set the stage for a world of political pageantry that may one day upend Britain’s governing party. The theatre might be dark at the moment, but there is undoubtedly more drama to come.

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