The clash between Boris Johnson and George Osborne over cuts to Transport for London’s budget, which would scupper the mayor’s 2020 vision for a cycling city, represents far more than an argument over “bums on bikes” or even economic growth.
It is a clash of political heavyweights who are busy manoeuvring for life “post-Cameron”. In this regard a famous test suggests that only one man would win.
Why do people vote for one candidate and not another? Years of detailed research has consistently revealed that it is rarely specific policies or political affiliations that matter but whether the voter – for one reason or another – feels that the candidate is a “nice guy” or a “good woman”. From Washington to London and from Canberra to Copenhagen this subjective and simple assessment is knows as the “cup of coffee” test: do voters perceive X or Y as someone they would like to sit down and have a cup of coffee with?
Tony Blair was broadly viewed by the public as someone who would pass this test (at least before Iraq); Gordon Brown as someone who spectacularly failed the test, even among Labour party members.
The “cup of coffee test” matters. Whether charisma, charm - or a more insidious form of deception or trickery, the fact is that you either have the political X-factor or you don’t. And George Osborne, for all his political talents, doesn’t; Boris Johnson, by contrast, appears almost born to charm even the most critical member of the public.
Boris has carefully cultivated the image of a bumbling buffoon, almost to the level of an art form. And yet it would be too easy - and also quite mistaken - to define Boris Johnson as little more than the clown of British politics, more accurate to define him as a deceptively polished and calculating über-politician.
As Paul Goodman, the editor of the ConservativeHome website, said: “In modern politics unconventional politicians are judged by different rules from conventional ones. Boris is part of a small band of unconventional politicians.” The news last month that Boris had fathered a daughter as a result of an affair hardly bleeped on the political radar. A survey conducted in the wake of the Appeal Court decision that it was in the “public interest” to know about his behaviour found that more than three-quarters surveyed said the news would not make them any less inclined to vote for him in a general election. (I doubt Osborne would fare so well.)
Boris, the only UK politician to have “first-name recognition” in the way a pop-star or favourite footballer might (Elvis, anyone? Or Becks?), has an immediate advantage when it comes to marketing himself as a friendly or familiar figure. The danger, however, is that “the cult of Boris” risks overlooking the carefully manufactured foppishness and buffoonery.
The head-scratching dufferishness, the slightly confused – even deranged – look of a person that does not seem to know where they have been, where they are or where they are going is little more than an act. An act, more importantly, that veils the existence of an incredibly sharp, astute and calculating politician.
The public may therefore be entertained by his antics - and he certainly adds a dash of colour to an increasingly grey and soulless profession - but there might be some value in looking a little more deeply at someone who is widely thought to covet the very highest office.
Or Machiavellian prince?
Charisma is, as Max Weber famously argued, a critical element of political leadership despite the fact that it is almost impossible to measure, define or quantify. The simple fact is that - like him or loathe him - Boris Johnson is charismatic. I remember watching him address a large public audience in Bromley during the summer of 2010 as part of the Mayor of London’s “Outreach” initiative and what was immediately striking was the manner in which he captivated the audience. He knew how to play the audience and play them – like a conductor on his podium – he did. Yet charisma on its own is not enough and just as Machiavelli argued that a true leader needed the strength of a lion and the cunning of a fox so too must charisma be matched by guile.
As I loitered by the exit to the gym at the end of the event I asked one or two questioners how they felt about the manner in which Boris had dealt with their questions (obliquely in one case, not at all in the other): the responses: “Isn’t he lovely!” and: “I don’t care – it was good fun!”, left me strangely puzzled and downcast.
Boris may often be foolish in terms of how he behaves or what he says but he is no fool. He passes “the cup of coffee test” like no other contemporary politician. His buffoonery provides a rather odd but incredibly effective political self-preservation mechanism – one that often distracts opponents or inquisitors from questions he’d rather not answer.