Boris Johnson makes good copy. That’s why editors love him and partly why – until now – he has had a pretty easy ride from the commentariat. Until Sunday’s interview by Eddie Mair, there’s been a consensus that here was a politician that literally (zip wire apart) defied gravity.
Indeed, the fallout from Sunday to an extent reinforces this view. A lot of people have already made their mind up – just see the comments sections on the newspaper websites, where the views are either Boris has had his just deserts or the rotten lefties have tried to stitch him up yet again. Clearly, these views are not necessarily representative of the electorate as a whole, but they do show you the filters that people are applying to this new information, and that’s what branding is all about.
Like that other populist politician of the right, Nigel Farage, Johnson has built his brand around a post-policy agenda where soundbites and quirky phrases substitute for detailed, serious analysis and proposals. Like Farage, Johnson has a pulpit (in his case, the Mayoralty), that enables him to pontificate on all kinds of matters without ever having to follow through. And speaking of pontificate, he has been allowed to present himself (as must any potential Pope) as being a reluctant runner for the top job.
What’s interesting about Sunday’s interview, though, is that all of a sudden the focus was not on Boris Johnson the personality but on Johnson’s activities, and here Mr Mayor was on more difficult ground. At some point, as Johnson pitches for the top job, he will have to account for his time at City Hall and to journalists less accommodating to Project Boris than those of the Evening Standard. He will offer a cable car, and a beautiful but eye-wateringly expensive vanity bus. From bikes to the Overground extensions to the Olympics, he has been able to take credit for others’ work. He will hand over to his successor a far less ambitious legacy than he inherited from his (also flawed) predecessor.
At some point there will be a more sustained and serious consideration of Johnson’s work. Next time an interview goes badly, he won’t be able to laugh it off with a puff piece from a mate, a quip about BBC bias and a blast from his dad: these things have a decreasing marginal impact. What this weekend has shown is that Brand Boris may not withstand the close scrutiny which is surely on its way.