Labour failed to take on Boris properly in London, twice. We never got a handle on how to fight him properly, and we allowed him and his campaign to define the terms of the election. He’s bested –twice – one of our political superstars (and one of our few single-name recognition politicians). Yet some in the Party still consider Boris just a joke and fail to see the threat his leadership of the Tories could be to us.
Now okay, there were problems with Ken as our candidate. But there were also problems with our campaign. If we let the unexpectedly close result and Ken’s issues blind us to the rest of what went wrong in London, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice: because a future Boris leadership is a genuine threat to Labour.
People like Boris, they can’t help themselves. As soon as I mentioned this article to a colleague, she agreed that lots of her Labour-supporting friends were very fond of the mayor. After years of Osborne and Cameron’s gloomy pronouncements and Labour’s gloomy warnings, Boris could feel like a breath of fresh air.
Osborne and Cameron have lost their once commanding lead over Miliband and Balls on economic competence. But this is not due to a surge in popularity for the Labour team, but a general distrust of both sets of offers. A candidate as skilled at disavowing his own party as much as attacking his opponents could win a great many of these “plague on both your houses” voters.
Boris is the McCavity of the Tory Party. Not held responsible for their mistakes not particularly attached to their brand – despite the fact that the character traits he most plays on are those of a traditional Tory. He’s a hard man to pin down or to pin his most obvious faults on.
When I have spoken to some Labour activists about this, the response is surprising unworried. It’s true that in national polls, a hypothetical Boris leadership doesn’t score all that well. But that is pretty meaningless and should not be taken for granted.
A real Boris leadership might stop the current heavy loss of membership the Tories are experiencing, and that might have an impact on the activists on the ground. We should not underestimate that.
He also makes great telly – we should not underestimate that.
A Boris leadership would not necessarily be good news for the Tories. He is highly flawed. He is lazy and uninterested in the detail of running things. He makes great mistakes (such as delaying his return during the London riots) that as leader of the country rather than figurehead for London might need more than chutzpah to fix. Do the Tories really want to elect another Old Etonian Bullingdon boy? The short term gain of picking the more popular candidate might be outweighed by the longer term message to the electorate and working class Tories.
So the Tories should not see a Boris leadership as a silver bullet that will cure their current woes. A leadership challenge before 2015 would be incredibly divisive. If the Tories lose the next election and have a contest straight away, that leaves Boris in the incredibly difficult job of Leader of the Opposition for years, a hard slog I can’t see him enjoying.
His best hope comes from Cameron scraping through again next time, with his leadership damaged enough to lead to a mid-term change of leader. If the Tories can’t win an outright majority next time, that complicates leadership matters, with coalition partners throwing their oar in.
But Labour must not be complacent. We need a strategy to deal with Boris and we should be working on it now. I suspect we would need to be the safer pair of hands. Play on our own leader’s image of geeky seriousness and make that a strength at a time of continued crisis.
We can’t out-Boris Boris and we shouldn’t try. But we do need to find better ways to neutralise him than we found in London. We can neither treat him as a joke nor as a typical Tory – neither approach has worked in the past. We must deal with the actual man, his popularity and his talents, not the cartoon of him we like to hold in our heads.
Boris may come across as a clown, but Labour should take the threat of his leading the Tory Party deadly seriously.