Driving back from Dover from holiday, we decided to let the satnav do the job of getting us round London. Yes, I know – you just head north on the M25, but we'd heard it was jammed because of the Olympics. Anyway, the satnav lady, in her digital wisdom, decided to take us straight into central London on the A2 and, before we knew it, we were in the middle of the Olympic Games complex and panicking in case we never got out again. But we did. In fact, we sailed through central London with uncanny speed because there was practically nothing on the roads. I have never seen London so quiet. It was like the sequel to 28 Days.
What has this got to do with the political prospects of Boris Johnson, who added to his buffoonish reputation yesterday by being left dangling from a zip wire during a photo-opportunity in London's Victoria park? Well, the success of London's traffic management during the Games is being seen as both another feather in the cap of the London Mayor and another nail in the coffin of David Cameron. The lack ot traffic congestion in central London, though an administrative achievement, is apparently helping to plunge Britain into what is being called a “triple dip recession”, presumably because economic activity has been damaged by people staying at home and watching British athletes failing to win anything. And Cameron will get the blame.
I'm not entirely sure of the soundness of this economic analysis. The worst manufacturing figures since 2009, just announced, were actually for the period preceeding the Games, and Boris Johnson insists that people are still spending in London town. But as the economy languishes almost any bad news is being used against David Cameron right now, and often by Conservatives. The luckless PM is being cast as a bad penny who only turns up in the audience for Olympics events in which British athletes lose. Meanwhile, Boris seems to be getting the credit for the acclaimed Games opening ceremony, even though he had little to do with Danny Boyle's pageant of social democratic values. David Cameron is arguably closer to Boyle's Britain than is Boris Johnson who, for all his populist bike riding, is very much an old-school Thatcherite who thinks the NHS is a bureaucratic dinosaur and wants Britain out of Europe.
But Johnson, former journalist and star of Have I Got News for You, is increasingly being seen as a winner by Tory donors and commentators, where Cameron is increasingly being seen as a loser. The London Mayor's opinion poll figures are very positive and most Tory supporters say he would make a better leader than the present incumbent. Plus, there are no real rivals for the Tory leadership should Cameron fall under the triple dip. George Osborne, the Chancellor, blew it with his omnishambles budget; the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is regarded even by Tories as a bit of a classroom swot; and the Foreign Secretary,William Haig, has been there before and not done it as Tory leader. Which leaves Boris as the only real Tory heavyweight left in the succession race.
If the Conservatives lose the next general election, or fail to win an absolute majority, there are many Tories who believe that Boris will grasp the torch from a faltering, exhausted Cameron. If there is no economic growth, and there appears to be none on the horizon, the prospects for the Conservatives are either opposition, or another improbable coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Of course, Boris would have to get a safe seat and abandon London politics – but no one doubts he has the ambition to do it.
But assuming Scoltand is still in the Union by 2015, or even if it has voted to leave, how would Boris play in Scotland? Well, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. On the face of it, this right-wing politician, an unreconstructed Bullingdon Tory toff, would go down in Scotland like a cup of cold sick. As London Mayor he has consistently criticised Scottish spending saying that “a pound spent in Croydon is of more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde”. He has also called for “devo max” for London, and said that water should be piped from Scotland “to irrigate and refresh the breadbasket of the country in the south and east”. Okay, he can give speeches in classical greek, but Scots would surely dismiss him as an English nationalist buffoon, a political Donald Trump.
Or would they? It might be that, on balance, Scots would favour someone who is unapologetic about his beliefs, is his own man and not a spin-doctored political professional. Anyway, Thatcher wasn't as unpopular in Scotland as people think, initially at least, and was still winning votes as late as 1983 when the Tories had 21 MPs in Scotland. Under Cameron they have one. Johnson wouldn't bring back the Tory glory days, but then neither did Cameron, for all his apologies for Thatcher's recessions and the poll tax. The Tories have been flatlining in Scotland throughout.
So it's not inconceivable that Boris Johnson could, through sheer personality, win more respect in Scotland than Cameron, just as he has won against the grain in London, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. When Boris made his famous gaffe about Liverpool “revelling in victimhood” he recovered by going straight to the city to confront his critics. It's not impossible that he could do the same here.
Look, I'm not saying the Tories would undergo a political revival in Scotland under Boris, they are too far gone for that. But I don't think he could do any worse. The media here would love to hate him and Boris would revel in being in the lion's den, expressing politically incorrect views while charming the pants off Morningside ladies. Some say that Boris is a bit like Alex Salmond (perish the thought) in that he is able to appeal across ideological boundaries and capable of winning respect and even votes from political opponents. I don't know about that, but watching him on the zip line yesterday, furiously waving his union flags and frantically calling for a ladder, you couldn't accuse Boris Johnson of hanging about.