Suddenly, the mop-topped mayor’s special brand of slapstick politics is no longer London’s little secret. Johnson’s antics have become the comic relief of U.S. Olympic coverage on NBC. The Russian press collectively rolled its eyes as he challenged President Vladimir Putin to strip “to the waist” for a judo match. France 24 declared his high-wire high jinks the Olympic “moment of indignity.” Johnson has not so much become the breakout star of these Games as its court jester.
But his antics, observers say, belie deathly serious political ambition. Political insiders call Johnson the clown who would be prime minister, a lion of the Conservative Party who has deftly leveraged Britain’s overdeveloped funny bone to become the second-most-powerful man in the country behind Prime Minister David Cameron, a fellow Conservative.
Much of Britain is guessing whether Johnson will stage his own bid for political gold at No. 10 Downing Street. His comedic turn at the Olympics has seen his popularity numbers in some polls soar, with the mayor of Western Europe’s largest metropolis finding comforting comparisons over the past week not just to John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson, but also Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan. Raising speculation, Johnson is preparing a series of overseas visits after the Olympics that some here see as an attempt to portray himself as a global statesman.
Publicly, Johnson denies that he has ambitions to become prime minister — a job that under British law would be technically difficult for him to achieve while still serving as mayor. He shrugs off the question with evasive, if characteristically amusing, answers, such as the one he recently gave David Letterman when asked whether he had a shot at becoming Britain’s next leader: I have “about as much chance as being reincarnated as an olive.” (Letterman retorted: “Do you think the hair is holding you back?”)
But Conservative Party watchers increasingly think that Johnson does protest too much. They suggest that the 48-year-old mayor will be gauging Cameron’s weakness ahead of the 2015 elections and could potentially orchestrate a bid to unseat him if he deems his chances of success high enough. If he does, analysts say, historians could look back at the London Games as the tipping point for Bozza.
“The Tory Party can be a harsh thing,” said Tim Montgomerie, the influential British pundit, using the nickname of the Conservatives in Britain. “They got rid of Margaret Thatcher, and they’d certainly get rid of Cameron if it seemed to suit purposes. Boris is supposed to have a questionable private life and all the rest of it, but in difficult times, as we have now, sometimes you need big personalities. I think Britain may need one now.”