The Mad Hatter

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Boris Johnson presents himself as a comical toff in touch with the people. John Newsinger takes a look behind the mask at the great hope of the Tory right.

Boris Johnson is desperate to become leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister. His time as Mayor of London has really been little more than a protracted campaign to replace David Cameron, accompanied by regular protestations of loyalty. He has left his "people" in charge while getting on with the more important task of keeping himself in the public eye, courting Rupert Murdoch and massaging the Tory right.

Many senior Conservatives regard the prospect of Johnson becoming leader, becoming our first pantomime prime minister, with horror. For many others, however, he is suitably right wing and despite this actually popular. Johnson has appeared in EastEnders and whereas George Osborne was booed at the Olympics, he was actually cheered. How has this British Berlusconi, this peculiar amalgam of Benny Hill and Mussolini, managed to establish himself as the leading contender for Cameron's job?

A crucial factor is Johnson's carefully constructed comical toff persona. This Old Etonian and Bullingdon stalwart, one of Lord Snooty's pals, has nevertheless managed to pass himself off as a sort of posh Dennis the Menace. And no matter how disgracefully, despicably, dishonestly or disloyally he has behaved, he has always got away with it by passing it off as a comedy turn. All of this is carefully calculated. Johnson, for example, always takes care to muss his hair before any public appearance. How else to explain his political survival, let alone his political success?

But Johnson is dangerous. He hopes to get into power as Benny Hill, but once there we will, without any doubt, see the Mussolini side of his character come to the fore.

Over the years Johnson has overcome some spectacular setbacks. He was sacked from his first job as a journalist on the Times for inventing an interview, only to move straight over to the obviously less scrupulous Telegraph. And when he was editor of the Spectator he published an article attacking the people of Liverpool for their "peculiar and deeply unattractive psyche", for their "excessive predilection for welfarism" and for wallowing in "victimhood" over the "more than 50 fans" killed at Hillsborough. Liverpuddlians still refused to acknowledge "the part played in the disaster by drunken fans". The casual contempt for the victims in this piece was perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that the Spectator could not even be bothered to get the number of victims right. It was 96.

When this article appeared, Johnson was shadow arts minister. The then Tory leader, Michael Howard, did not sack him for this, but soon after got rid of him for lying about an affair that went public. This would have been the end of most political careers, but not Johnson's.

Johnson recognised the Commons was never going to be his way into power. His comic persona did not perform well there. Instead London was to be the way in which he would foist himself on a reluctant parliamentary Conservative Party.

His "Margaret Thatcher" lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies on 27 November was an important move in his campaign to replace Cameron. Here he went out of his way to massage the Tory right, embracing the most vicious Thatcherism, but with jokes.

He began his speech by accusing the BBC of doing "its best to foment an uprising" at the time of Thatcher's funeral by playing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead". This nonsense would, of course, appeal to Murdoch and the Tory right and the drawback that it is completely and totally untrue can be passed off as "I was only joking". In fact, the BBC played one five second clip of the song!

Predictably enough he praised Thatcher for defeating the miners and for taming "the power of the unions",Thatcher had created "a buccaneering environment where there was no shame...in getting rich". Johnson went out of his way to celebrate greed and envy and, not for the first time, called for the top taxpayers to receive automatic knighthoods. Inequality was a positive good and anyway was clearly genetic in origin. The rich are rich because they are better than the rest of us. This idea always seems to revive when inequality reaches a certain level. It's the only way the right can think of to justify it.

There is a problem with social mobility though. Johnson's answer is a return to the assisted places scheme, sending selected state students to public school, and a return to selection and grammar schools. This section of the speech was clearly aimed at damaging Michael Gove, one of his main rivals in the race to replace Cameron. For the moment, what Johnson found most cheering was the fact that there were "hedge fund kings" running academies!

Most incredibly, he celebrated the fact that of "the 193 present members of the UN we have conquered or at least invaded 171". And in a carefully calculated throwaway line he referred to the fact that there was nothing to prevent "the entire population of Transylvania...trying to pitch camp in Marble Arch". What a hoot! Vampire Roma descending on London. Only joking, of course.

Many on the Tory right cannot understand why there is no British equivalent of the Tea Party. In their desperation they are prepared to turn to the Mad Hatter.