What a difference a year makes. Last August, London was ablaze and convulsed by riots. Across large swathes of the British capital, police appeared content to surrender control of the streets to rioting youths who looted and pillaged until they could loot and pillage no more. Commentators, both domestic and international, wondered how it had come to this. Something, though it was not quite clear just what, had gone badly wrong in Britain. The city's mayor, Boris Johnson, later shrugged off criticism, claiming the police had done "a fantastic job" -- a view shared by few.
Fast forward to this August and London has presented a far different face to the world. Barring any last minute mishaps, these Olympic Games have been a tremendous success. London has been en fête and, for a few weeks at least, Britain is at ease with itself. Britons, naturally a grumbling people, have gone goofy for the Olympics and there's a palpable feel-good factor across the land. And the sun has even come out, on occasion.
Though the right to host the games was won by Tony Blair's Labour government and though Prime Minister David Cameron once hoped the games (plus economic growth) would kick-start his re-election campaign in 2015, the politician who has gained most from the Olympics is London's mayor, Boris Johnson.
Boris -- the only politician who has a first-name-only relationship with the electorate -- once described his prospects of ever becoming prime minister as being "only slightly better than my chances of being decapitated by a Frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a disused fridge, or reincarnated as a olive." But, basking in an Olympic glow, and with Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government liable -- as matters stand at present -- to lose the next election, the once-improbable idea that Boris might actually succeed Cameron as Conservative leader is now being taken seriously in London.
And yet Boris continues to insist that he's not a contender. This week, he told breakfast television that, "I think it is inconceivable that I am going to be prime minister. At the moment, I certainly don't want to be prime minister." As denials go, "at the moment" is less than Shermanesque. But Britons indulge eccentricity and admire self-deprecation. When the mayor was photographed dangling helplessly from a zip wire last week, Boris turned a potentially embarrassing photograph to his advantage. "I think the brakes got stuck," he quipped. He then followed it up watching himself on television with, "How could anybody elect a prat who gets stuck in a zip wire?"
But Boris doth protest too much -- and he knows it too. It was one thing when he was elected minister of Parliament for the rock-solid Conservative seat of Henley, but quite another when this mere "entertainer" somehow managed to be elected mayor of one of the world's greatest cities. Not once, but twice. Few people at Westminster believe Boris's ambitions have yet been sated. It is considered a matter of when and how, not if, he returns to the House of Commons.
His relationship with prime minister is a bit uneasy. "If any other politician was stuck on a zip wire it would be a disaster," said Cameron. "For Boris, it's an absolute triumph." Though contemporaries at Oxford (and each members of the Bullingdon Club, a now notorious aristocratic drinking club), Boris is seen as a dangerous, unpredictable, free agent by Cameron's supporters. It is good, they say, that London's mayor is a Conservative; it would be better if the mayor were someone more reliable. Or, as one of his former colleagues somewhat less decorously told writer Iain Martin, Boris is "shallow, duplicitous, selfish, sociopathic, scheming."