Boris Johnson: Mayor of London a “nasty piece of work” – but do the public think so, or care?

The British press has devoted a lot of lines this week to how Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and possible future rival for British PM (though he’s never admitted to this ambition) was made to squirm on the sofa of a popular political talk show as his interviewer, Eddie Mair, dug his scalpel in deep, calling Johnson a “nasty piece of work”, quizzing him about being fired from The Times for making up quotes, being sacked by his party for allegedly lying about an affair and the infamous recorded phone call with Darius Guppy where they discuss a plan to have a journalist beaten up. A classic car crash interview in many ways, but has it actually damaged Brand Boris?

A man notoriously impossible to embarrass – remember how, stuck dangling in mid-air while riding a zip wire as part of the London Olympic celebrations, Johnson wholeheartedly embraced the inelegant five minutes by waving his flags and leading the audience in cheering on British gold medal-winning rowers – was distressed and uncomfortable by the direct probing. For the average politician an interview like this would have been a travesty – immoral mistakes dragged up from decades ago, futile attempts to change topic, stumbling, head in hands.

But the Boris brand is strong (a note for our overseas readers – in the UK Boris Johnson has ‘one word’ brand equity. Just as there’s Beyonce, Obama, Jacko and Madonna, there’s Boris.) That the awkward interview filled the headlines – many turning on Mair’s inquisition-esque interviewing techniques rather than Boris – is in itself testimony to the strength of the brand.

Brits like reading about him (even if they don’t like him or his policy) because he turns dry politics into something human and understandable with his superfluous vocabulary, bear-like presence and spontaneous moves – such as when he performed the ‘Mobot’ upon request from a journalist during a press conference to mark the end of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Brand Boris has been carefully constructed since he was elected to one of the most powerful positions in Britain – Mayor of London – in 2008 (who calls the London bike hire scheme ‘Barclay’s Bikes’? – they’re always Boris Bikes) and it’s left him with ample room for the odd slip-up.

Further to his advantage is the fact that whilst Boris may have a colourful list of gaffes in his past personal and professional life, they tend to be attributed to his ‘gung-ho’ attitude, not a lack of ability do his job well. In politics, whilst personal and political competency are both of importance to the electorate, ultimately politicians lie and we know it. It’s skill for the job that matters.

Contrast the Boris battering on personal integrity to the career-crippling CBS interview suffered by Sarah Palin, former Republican Party nominee for Vice President. Palin came across as ill-informed, incompetent and incapable of doing the job she was running for –”As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where – where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border” was her explanation for why Alaska’s proximity to Russia supposedly gave her foreign policy experience.

So – putting the leg-work into constructing  a strong and stable brand is paying off for the Mayor and the nature of Mair’s questions also cushioned his reputation from any serious repercussions. And then, a calculated and clever move delivered in true blustering, self-deprecating style,  Boris went and turned the whole thing round to his favour, insisting it is the “function of BBC journalists to bash up politicians, particularly people like me…fair play to Eddie” thereby shutting the whole debacle down and coming out relatively unscathed.

Note: Just after this article was published, new research from YouGov was published revealing that not only did Boris come out unscathed, he came out way on top! The poll shows that if he became Conservative leader, he would smash the lead of Ed Miliband, Labour leader, in the opinion polls. His handling of the blundering interview appears to have made Boris more appealing than ever to the ordinary voter… perhaps we’re looking at a future PM after all?!

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