Boris Johnson delivered his last speech as Mayor of London in Manchester yesterday. When he stands down next May he will probably be parachuted into a Cabinet position and begin the last leg of his life long assault for Number 10. Through a speech which arguably was his most humorous to date (The Mirror has very helpfully picked out all the jokes), in which he also found time to defend his record in office and gently reproach George Osborne for stealing his best policies, Johnson fired his opening salvo in his bid to defeat his challengers for the Conservative leadership in 2019.
He knows who his principal rivals are – Chancellor George Osborne and Theresa May, the Home Secretary who, just one hour before Boris started speaking, concluded in a speech on immigration that there was “no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade.” It’s a sentiment that will go down so well with grassroots members – and it’s those who vote to choose the leader after MPs whittle down the field – that the fact that the Home Secretary has had the ability to control about half of inward arrivals, and almost all non-EU arrivals, for the last five years, does little to undermine her credibility. Anyway, she is positioning herself as the candidate most distant from the metropolitan arm of the party, which is more liberal on immigration and not particularly socially conservative.
George Osborne, the heir-apparent, snookered Boris by expropriating his living wage campaign. Osborne has the strategic advantage of being First Secretary of State in charge of government strategy as well as having extensive support in the parliamentary party. Boris’ other One Nation stances on inequality and high pay could also be taken from him, and Osborne has many allies who can be mobilised.
Boris Johnson was keen to boast a good record as Mayor of London since he took office in 2008. 400,000 people lifted out of poverty, crime down by 20%, road deaths down 40%, air pollution down 15%, and transport delays cut by half despite a 25% rise in demand. This was an important and gentle rebuke to the idea that the sum of his achievements is no more than the sum of his pet projects. You can’t travel in Central London anymore without seeing them; they are part of the furniture, and you’d have to think there is a slightly narcissistic element to the nice but impractical Routemaster buses and the ever-trendy Boris Bikes wending their way round congested streets heaving with the anxious ‘shrublets’ feeling increasingly priced out of their city. Boris did mention this in the context of excessive corporate pay and investors who treat London property as safe boxes, but despite his achievements in promoting the city as a premier global business location and a job-creation engine, his reputation will be immeasurably damaged if his ultimate legacy is leave London a city where it is more difficult to live in.
But in the end it’s a question Boris’ manner. The jokes work at big conferences where serious issues are discussed, difficult choices are presented, and a hateful mob is assembled outside. They offer light relief, but when I think of the Closing Ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the zip wire, the slip into the river, comments on ping pong, why woman go to university and Liverpudlians you have to wonder whether this is the man we want to put in front of Vladmir Putin. Can you see him performing in PMQs, having to sit down regularly and letting the other guy speak? There is much more substance to Boris than the comical facade, and he marries an authentic personality with sly calculation well, but you have to wonder whether that self-caricaturing eccentricity which has got him this far could well conspire to defeat him. If Boris Johnson is to defeat George Osborne in 2019, he needs to show much more of his inner substance.