Sunday, 20 December 2009

Is Boris 'highly unlikely' to run again in 2012?

Who will be the Tory candidate for London Mayor in 2012? I still think that it will probably be Boris Johnson.

Yet Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, who I have to admit has much better Tory connections than I do, writes that "I gather that Boris is highly unlikely to stand for a second term: he has his eyes on the No.10 prize and would need to get back into Parliament somehow".

This will fuel speculation about whether it is part of a long softening up exercise, so that a final Boris decision not to run does not come as a political bombshell. Boris started the speculation last April, telling the Standard that he "is going to think about" running again, but did not exclude the idea that he might not seek re-election.

And it may also see manouvering among possible alternative Tory candidates step up. Shaun Bailey took the last opportunity to make clear he would like to be a candidate. But which other candidates might emerge?


I looked at the case for Boris wanting to get out for Liberal Conspiracy at the time of the Standard interview. The fear is not only the damage that a political defeat in 2012 could do to brand Boris; it is also that being in City Hall until 2016, aged 52, would mean missing a return to the Commons at a 2014/15 General Election, and so a good chance of not being an MP during the next Tory leadership contest.

Boris no doubt relishes the image of a man willing to tear up the political rulebook.

But there are three reasons why I don't think he will duck out of the 2012 race - and why not running again does not really seem to be as smart as those promoting the "one term strategy" may think.

1. I can't quite see BoJo walking away from a decent shot at the global spotlight of the London 2012 Olympics, just months after the election.

It is not just a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It might also offer a tempting opportunity to compete on both the global and domestic political stage with whoever might then be PM. If he could get himself re-elected, this would be easily the most effective springboard for a leadership bid. (George Osborne would be rather happier if Boris wasn't Mayor in 2012).

2. If not running is part of his "Boris for PM" strategy, it seems quite likely to backfire and prove counter-productive for Boris' personal ambitions.

2012 could prove a tough contest for Boris himself. But most Tories think he would have a shot. And they are pretty sure they would be toast without him, as Nelson indicates. But if the party thinks Boris has thrown away the Mayoralty, looking rather like he has put personal ambition before party interests, won't that harm him with the voters he would need in a future leadership election?

3. To avoid that, Boris would have to find a convincing public excuse for not running for re-election. But what might that be?

It will lack credibility if it does not seem stronger than the three plausible motivations already being publicly discussed, none of which seem to help his further ambitions.

(i) Bottling out of a contest which he fears he could lose, thus damaging his future trajectory.

(ii) Being worried about being out of Parliament when the Tories next elect a leader;

(iii) Not much enjoying the responsibility of exercising executive power. (That may well seem to be the case but it is probably not going to be central to a future pitch for the party leadership and premiership).

Boris does not seem to have got much keener on the details of the Mayoralty: he was recently overheard complaining that his deputy Simon Milton seemed to be the man 'whose job it is to tell me what I can't do'.

For Boris to show he had, in fact, put country and party first, he would probably need an urgent summons from the party leader to give up City Hall. (But its not very plausible to imagine Cameron insisting that a future Conservative Cabinet could not successfully address some vital area of the national interest - the public finances, or foreign policy perhaps - without Boris, even if the role of Court Jester might be thought of particular importance to the national morale in an austere age).

And why would Dave want to do that?


So I suspect Boris will find himself running again for Mayor in 2012. Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome thinks so too.

Even if, whisper it, he might not be totally committed 110% to the cause of re-election.

If he does decide to run again, it may well be worth pressing him for a firm pledge that he would serve a full term in City Hall if elected.

But, even if he were to make one, here's my long-range forecast:

Were Boris (God help us) to win again: don't rule out an early departure, Sarah Palin-style, some time after the Olympic festivities, so that he could seek to return to the Commons at a General Election in 2014 or 2015.


Nelson is also tipping Peter Mandelson as a possible Labour candidate for Mayor. We'll see, but as the intriguing field of those tipped as possible contenders grows - Ken Livingstone, Peter Mandelson, David Lammy, Jon Cruddas, Oona King, Alan Sugar and others (though I am not sure I have yet heard anybody throw in a Miliband or two) - the case grows ever stronger for a London Labour open primary to reach out and energise London's progressive voters in what could be a fascinating primary campaign.

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