LONDON — There are many ways by which you may measure the depth of the hole in which David Cameron finds himself. For one, the British economy remains stagnant: this week's budget halved the forecast for economic growth this year to just 0.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Long-term government debt is forecast to rise to 85 percent of GDP. Five years on from the financial crisis, more than 2.5 million Britons remain unemployed. And Cameron's party has been humiliated in a string of special elections; the Conservatives remain 10 points behind Labour in the polls.
None of this can be considered good news. But perhaps the greatest symptom of Cameron's difficulties is the recent chatter about his own future as leader of the Conservative Party. Once secure, Cameron's position is no longer a subject of backroom, clandestine discussions. It is a matter of open speculation that is by no means confined to those MPs who have long loathed the prime minister. Backbench discontent is the price of power in gloomy times but now senior cabinet ministers -- such as Home Secretary Teresa May and Defense Secretary Philip Hammond -- are perceived to be maneuvering, jostling for position in the race to succeed Cameron.
Neither May, Hammond, nor any of the other contenders who presently sit around the cabinet table, however, excite or titillate pundits like another pretender to the throne. Yes, Boris Johnson is back in the news and, as is his wont, making mischief.
The shambles-haired mayor of London is incapable of not making "news." This week he was at it again, admitting in a forthcoming television documentary that, dash it, all things being equal he'd really quite fancy being prime minister. Beneath that bumbling exterior lurks a politician whose ambition has only been marginally downgraded from childhood days when, as he told his sister, he aspired to be "world king."
Though he offered the pro forma caveat that "it's not going to happen," the mayor's suggestion he would like to "have a crack" at the job -- if, using a rugby metaphor, "the ball came loose from the back of a scrum" -- is a more candid admission of ambition than he has previously offered.
A decade ago, Boris suggested he had "as much chance of becoming prime minister as of being decapitated by a Frisbee or of finding Elvis." A year later, those odds, by Boris's own estimation, had lengthened still further. Then it was as probable as "finding Elvis on Mars" or of Boris himself being "reincarnated as an olive." This is no longer as far-fetched as once it seemed.
Boris -- the only British politician universally known by his forename -- is the most reliably entertaining character in British politics. Part vaudeville-shaman, part P.G. Wodehouse character, the mayor of London is the antithesis of the identikit, on-message modern politician. Despite not being a member of Parliament, he remains the bookmakers' favorite to succeed Cameron as leader of the Conservative party.
Right on cue, one veteran Conservative parliamentarian announced this month that he is "keeping his seat warm for Boris" and would be prepared to vacate his place in Parliament if the mayor wished to take it. According to Sir Peter Tapsell, Boris would make an "excellent" leader of the opposition.