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Olympics: London mayor turns Games into political gold

11 august 2012, 13:34
0
London mayor Boris Johnson has had a golden political Olympics, emerging for the first time as a serious contender for prime minister despite -- or perhaps because of -- his clownish antics, AFP reports.

During the Games, the 48-year-old has whipped up huge crowds chanting his name, described beach volleyball players as "glistening like wet otters" and even found himself dangling helplessly from a zip wire.

By turning even the most unpromising situations into political gold, the Conservative with the distinctive mop of blond hair is increasingly being tipped for the job of his former schoolmate, Prime Minister David Cameron.

"This is Britain. The British do have a taste for eccentrics, more than many countries. It's nearly always a good thing to be seen as an eccentric," political analyst Tony Travers of the London School of Economics told AFP.

Johnson's Olympian journey began in typically bizarre fashion at the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

He mystified his Chinese hosts with a speech saying that ping pong was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th cenutury, when it was called "wiff-waff".

But he started to come into his own the day before the start of the London Games, when he whipped up a crowd by mocking US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who had questioned London's readiness to stage the Games.

In scenes that must have haunted Cameron as his national government languishes in the polls, around 60,000 people in Hyde Park chanted "Bo-ris, Bo-ris".

Johnson also dispensed with diplomatic niceties after French President Francois Hollande joked about Great Britain's slow start in the Olympics.

"Well, M. le President mettez-ca dans votre pipe et fumez-le: Bien je jamais eh (Well Mr President, put that in your pipe and smoke it: well I never)", he wrote in schoolboy French after Britain surged up the medal table.

But perhaps the most telling moment was when Johnson got stuck on a zip wire at an Olympic screening event, and spent several minutes dangling in mid-air in his suit, waving a pair of Union flags.

Footage of the incident went viral on the internet and even Cameron himself paid tribute to the way Johnson turned it to his advantage.

"If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zipwire, it would be a disaster. For Boris, it's an absolute triumph," Cameron said.

The danger for Cameron is that Conservative lawmakers increasingly see Johnson as a possible cure for the party's electoral woes, as the fragile coalition government struggles with a double-dip recession.

The Conservative-leaning Telegraph newspaper said last week that the party's donors were flocking to Johnson and that Cameron is "on course to lose the next election, and his leadership, and he knows it."

Johnson "managed to be reelected (as mayor) against the flow for his party," said Travers.

"He is popular with people, the middle of the road voters. He is capable of convincing an important proportion of the electorate that he is not like other politicians."

The irony is that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was the premier's contemporary at the elite boarding school Eton and at Oxford University, while he boasts a former Ottoman empire interior minister among his ancestors.

But his outspokenness and status as a "social liberal" despite his conservatism work in his favour, Travers added.

Johnson himself has repeatedly said he is not intending to run for prime minister.

"How could anybody elect a prat who gets stuck in a zip wire?" he said on Wednesday. "I have got four years of mayor of London ahead... perhaps this is the moment to knock this once and for all on the head?"

Johnson's main electoral liability is a colourful private life that includes a string of reported affairs, although the father-of-four appeared with his wife at the Olympics.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote an unauthorised biography of Johnson called "Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition", said that he was "hugely clever and politically astute" but also "disloyal to his party."

"He has yet to prove himself in action, let alone as a contender to be PM," she wrote.

Johnson would also have to return to parliament if he wanted a tilt at the Conservative leadership ahead of elections in 2015, not to mention overhauling the Tories' 10-point deficit in the polls to the opposition Labour party.

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