Boris, Ken and the cult of personality

So the bumbling nincompoop is challenging the killjoy Stalinist for mayorship of London. Emily Hill doesn’t care who wins, so long as it isn’t Ken.

Emily Hill

Topics Politics

Boris Johnson is standing for Mayor of London, and the British press has broken out in hagiographic hives.

‘Politics has just got a lot more jolly’, bellowed the editorial in The Times. By throwing his ‘multi-coloured woollen ski hat into the ring’, the ‘plummy-voiced nincompoop’ has ‘electrified’ next May’s mayoral race, explained all papers unanimously. The Guardian whored a double-page spread to an orgy of Boris reportage, commentary and quotation. It was adorned with a big picture of Boris’s hooray bouffant, promised there would be a Boris blog on the Guardian website, and explained special Bozza terminology in a makeshift ‘Speak Boris’ dictionary.

The tongues-out love-in didn’t stop there. Boris, Quentin Letts explained in the Daily Mail, is ‘unorthodox, slapstick, adorable’; he is, adds the historian Andrew Roberts, ‘eccentric, original, a good thing’; he is, continues Sir Simon Jenkins, ‘another thread in the technicolour dreamcoat that is twenty-first century London’. He ‘has risen with every disaster, flourished with every gaffe’. Were Boris to die tomorrow, he would, no doubt, finally be recognised as the people’s princess. And only after a decent period of mourning would we all remember to vomit.

For foreigners and the undead, I shall just explain: Boris Johnson is a Conservative MP and serial shagger, who formerly edited the right-wing magazine the Spectator. He is famous for his constantly askew, blonde mop of hair, and for his performances as a bumbling fool on television shows like Have I Got News For You. Everybody loves Boris, including my grandma, who keeps a picture of him on her fridge. And it is not really surprising that they do: when our prime minister Gordon Brown attempts to smile, he looks like a stroke victim experiencing an involuntary spasm. When David Cameron, the leader of the opposition, opens his mouth, it jangles about with the spontaneity of a marionette. Boris, who emits a screed of mildly offensive soundbites – about Liverpool, Portsmouth and Papua New Guinea, before shouting ‘Woopsie!’ straight after in a posho blither – seems a break from monotony, and an unparalleled opportunity for bored sketchwriters to wax lyrical.

Also, there is no doubt that many ordinary Londoners are excited about the prospect of Boris running for mayor – principally because it means that someone (anyone!) recognisable is challenging Ken Livingstone. To your average Londoner, a vote for Boris would probably be a vote for flushing your toilet whenever you liked. Livingstone, who has spent the past seven years acting like a paranoid axe murderer in his own liberty slasher movie, is obsessed with CCTV cameras and congestion charging, and has pushed through rigid and killjoy policies on housing and transport while posturing about our sinfulness on green issues and healthy living. There is no compartment of a Londoner’s life that Livingstone has not probed. In 2005, he exhorted Londoners ‘to consider…that if all you have done is take a pee, you don’t need to flush the toilet’. In the Livingstone household, it is rumoured, once-a-day toilet-flushing will suffice – saving the future of plant life in Africa at a stroke. On the 2012 London Olympics, he has said: ‘We didn’t bid for the Olympic Games because I liked sport. I have never been to a sports event in my life.’ The greatest show on Earth? Not on Livingstone’s watch. He doesn’t ‘do’ enjoyment.

Boris Johnson on his bicycle

Livingstone has led the backlash against Boris. ‘To put someone in charge of London with such a right-wing record, who has no experience of managing anything practical at all, and who has shown no serious interest in even the most important issues confronting the capital, would not be a joke but seriously damaging for London’, he moaned. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee is marching right behind Ken: she called Boris a ‘jester, toff, self-absorbed sociopath and serial liar’ who ‘could win’. She is horrified by the London Evening Standard’s support for Boris, reporting with disgust the comments of ‘right wing’ columnists like Andrew Gilligan and expressing her shock that anyone could welcome Boris as coming ‘to save our great city from Ken’s ghastly empire of bureaucrats, bendy buses and earnest Cuban festivals’.

Toynbee misses the mark. Claiming that Boris is a bastion of the right is as delirious as citing Ken as a hero of the left. Being ‘of the left’ did not used to mean championing authoritarian interference at every level of life, down to our toilet habits. And for all the claims that he is a staunch ‘right winger’, Boris says some pretty un-fascist things in favour of individual and collective liberty. He does not believe in the killer spectre of passive smoking, has attacked legislation on car booster seats as ‘utterly demented’, and has demanded to know, in response to the Jamie Oliver-driven healthy-eating jihad, ‘why shouldn’t [parents] push pies through the railings?’ He has also compared climate change to a new religion: ‘People want the sweet moralistic feeling of telling someone to stop doing something…the moralising mumbo-jumbo becomes more important than the scientific reality.’

In fact, far from representing a break from the norm, or a return to any glory days of left v right, the forthcoming mayoral election will only confirm the paralysed state of contemporary politics. The collapse of left and right has left behind a political no man’s land of isolated skirmishes and endless drudgery. The politics of personality has taken the place of the politics of competing visions, and both Boris and Ken capture that fact: Boris lives off his colourful, outspoken, bonkers personality, while Ken is defined by the fact that he doesn’t have a personality, per se, but he does speak in a constantly serious, monotone and grating voice and therefore he must be sort of left-wing. The election of either Boris or Ken as mayor will confirm the triumph of the Cult of Personality. In his personality cult, Red Ken may be a little Stalinist (petty, bureaucratic, sinister and prying), but Boris may well prove to be a little Mussolini: flamboyant speaker, publicly ridiculous, enthusiastic about trains.

Principally, Boris will stand for Bozza, and little more. Livingstone’s claim this week that Boris’s biography ‘is the scariest thing I have read since Silence of the Lambs’ only confirms that he is as much a fan of fiction as he is of sport. But then, if Boris wants to follow Hannibal Lecter’s example and cannibalise Ken with some fava beans and a nice chianti , that would be all right by me.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume defended Boris Johnson’s right to be offensive, condemned Ken Livingstone’s miserabilism but wondered if anyone would start a liberal backlash over Ken Livingstone’s run-in with the Standards Board. Josie Appleton decried Red Ken’s green tyranny but thought the Standard Board’s case against him brought democracy into disrepute. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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