To many, London Mayor Boris Johnson typifies the Etonian elitism of David Cameron’s government.
Despite this, he is the bookie’s favourite to win the London Mayoral election next month, leading his closest rival, Labour candidate Ken Livingstone, by six points in the latest polls.
After four years as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson is still known by many as a gaffe-prone former MP, journalist and TV show host. So does his popularity relate more to his charisma, or his policies?
Born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in New York City, 1964, Johnson has a truly cosmopolitan heritage. He describes himself as a ‘one-man melting pot’, with Turkish, French and German stock.
His great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, briefly served as an interior minister in the Ottoman Empire, while his father's maternal grandmother, Marie Louise de Pfeffel, was a descendant of Prince Paul of Württemberg. Johnson is, therefore, ancestrally related to King George II and subsequently to David Cameron, as an eighth cousin.
Little wonder, then, that critics regard Johnson as every bit the silver spoon fed cavalier. Yet the friendship between Johnson and Cameron should not be overplayed. Johnson is two years older, which is a lot in school years. And while they both joined Bullingdon, Oxford’s riotous upper-class dining club, Johnson does little to hide his background, ever playing up to it, while Cameron has done everything in his power to airbrush it out of his CV.
After finishing his degree in Classics from Balliol College (and a stint as President of the Union for the Social Democrat Party), Johnson’s first serious job was as a trainee reporter for the Times. It didn’t end well - he was sacked for falsifying a quotation. He went on to work for the Wolverhampton Express and Star before joining the Daily Telegraph as their Brussels correspondent.
Here Boris made a name for himself, emerging as Margaret Thatcher's favourite right-wing journalist. At the Telegraph, Johnson’s natural intellect was allowed to flourish, and serving as assistant editor from 1994 to 1999 his reputation grew.
Things were going so well, in fact, that in 1999 he became editor of conservative journal The Spectator, where he remained until December 2005.
At the same time he was starting to make his name in politics, becoming Conservative MP for Henley in 2001.
It was when he was appointed Shadow Minister for Higher Education by Tory party leader Michael Howard in 2005 that Boris decided to concentrate on his career at Westminster, stepping down from his role at The Spectator.
In many ways, Johnson has fought his way into politics through the media while cultivating the appearance that he has stumbled in, and this has a critical impact on how he is seen by the public at large. Toby Young, whose 2009 Oxford based docu-drama ‘When Boris Met Dave‘, says he is ‘by some measure the most ambitious man of his generation’.
Johnson's buffoonery is a construction, just like David Cameron's oft-derided claims to be Mr. Average. Boris’ public persona is a curious mix of fuddled charm and intellectual grandeur. He is famously disarming, masking a fierce ambition. Boris stood out even in a family of high achievers: his younger sister Rachel, novelist and editor of The Lady, said that her brother's desire as a child was to be ‘World King’.
It should come as no surprise that in his seven years as an MP he has enjoyed more media attention than politicians on the front bench. His famous TV appearances on shows Have I Got News for You, Room 101 and Top Gear, will for many people remain the first place they heard of Boris Johnson.
In an age of on-message career politicians, he is a one-off, and since his landslide victory against the incumbent London Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2008, the former Conservative MP has been known as much for his eye-catching initiatives as for his toe-curling gaffes.
Policy-wise, days after his election he banned alcohol consumption on public transport, launched a central London bicycle hire scheme now known as ‘Boris bikes’ (which Livingstone purists term ‘Kencycles’) and announced he would ditch the 'bendy bus' in favour of a new generation of hop-on, hop-off Routemaster double deckers.
But he has not been free of controversy. He has offended the people of Liverpool, Portsmouth and Papua New-Guinea. He even targeted TV chef Jamie Oliver, stating that he would like to ‘get rid of [him] and tell people to eat what they like’.
More tellingly, Johnson is often critical of the coalition government, and has been described as Cameron’s chief rival within the Conservative party.
So will a second mayoral term be enough for Boris Johnson? He insisted there was ‘not a snowball's chance in Hades’ that he would land another big job in politics. And while his outspokenness is presented as a thorn in the side of the coalition, his role to the Conservatives is a fairly valuable one. He acts as an outlier, apparently incapable of towing the party line, yet limited to City Hall. His hyperbolic criticism of the coalition’s housing benefit changes as "Kosovo-style social cleansing" actually make Cameron appear a moderate. He's a likeable face in a party sometimes lacking in charisma.
Furthermore, with the Olympics throwing London into the world spotlight he may well become internationally famous. But the pressure is on. Not only will he need to deliver a slickly organised and gaffe-free Olympic games, he will also need to censor his jokes. His frequent disregard for the politically-correct, which often delights voters, will need to be substituted for a wholly on-brand performance to international dignitaries and sponsors.
If Johnson’s ambitions do indeed lie beyond City Hall, he will need to put the buffoonery behind him. Furthermore, he will need to shake the accusations of cronyism often covered in the press. There have been a panoply of resignations since Johnson took office in 2008, including advisors such as David Ross, James McGrath and Tom Campbell. Johnson needs to demonstrate maturity if he is to be a serious contender in mainstream politics. Otherwise, he will make a fabulous after-dinner speaker.