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Famous for being famous: Boris Johnson may be the best-known politician in Britain but running on his record could hurt his re-election

By Adam Bienkov
7 November 2011, 09:55

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Raphaël Labbé photo

He’s the first celebrity politician of the modern age. Known not only by his first name but by his very silhouette, Boris Johnson understands the power and significance of celebrity better than any other political figure in Britain today.

Whether he’s knocking bouffants with Barbara Windsor, or straddling a “Boris bike” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is always Boris who manages to steal the star role.
And like other modern celebrities, Boris understands that fame no longer requires the famous to actually do anything. For the modern celebrity, fame itself is both the means and the ends.

He is the Katie Price of British Politics. The Peter Andre of local government. For Boris Johnson the photo opportunity is no longer a tool to promote the policy. The photo opportunity is the policy.

In her new book Just Boris: the irresistible rise of a political celebrity, Sonia Purnell brilliantly portrays a man addicted to power and fame and yet disinterested in using it for anything other than self-promotion.

Whether it be his campaign to become Mayor, or his childhood dream to become “World King” Boris’s monomaniacal desire for attention has been matched by a pathological unwillingness to actually do anything with it.

Whilst MP for Henley, Boris made great trails on Have I Got News for You, but left almost no mark on the House of Commons.

His appearances in the chamber were rare, turning up for fewer than half of the votes he was meant to and entering into no great policy debates within his party.

His duties towards his constituents were often far from his mind, as he concentrated on his far bigger roles as newspaper columnist, magazine editor and panel show guest.
It is during these years that Boris, the celebrity we know today was forged but it is his actions outside of his political office that everybody will remember.

Be it his front page philandering, his blockbusting panel show appearances, or his prime
time apology tour of Liverpool, Boris stole the headlines for everything apart from his policies.

Is it any wonder then that as Mayor of London, his actual achievements have been so very slim?

His bike rental scheme, which is used by fewer than 1% of Londoners, is his only significant legacy, whilst the big problems he promised to solve have survived intact.

Elected on a ticket of tackling youth crime, Boris has overseen the worst summer of rioting and looting London has ever seen, whilst his flagship “youth mentoring” scheme has mentored a grand total of 21 youths.

The Metropolitan Police has lurched from crisis to crisis and commissioner to commissioner, with Boris dismissing the biggest scandal in its history as “codswallop.”
Fares meanwhile have soared, whilst the underground system has continued to be cursed by closures and delays.

In fact his record has been so slight, that his re-election campaign is reduced to heralding the freezing of the council tax precept as a great achievement (a policy followed by literally every other local authority in the country).

But then does any of this really matter in the age of the celebrity? Does anybody really care about Boris the failed politician, when Boris the superstar celebrity has been such a success?

The answer to that question is to be found at next year’s Mayoral election, when Londoners will be asked to vote Boris either in or out of the celebrity house.

The result will determine who is the Mayor of London for the next four years, but could also determine the kind of politics we’re likely to see from here on in.
In politics, the age of the celebrity is most closely associated with Tony Blair and New Labour, but it is in Boris Johnson that the era has really found its figurehead.

If he wins next year despite his poor record then it will be a victory not just for Boris the celebrity, but for the very power of celebrity itself.
And the world of politics should expect plenty more celebrity politicians in the years to come.

This writer may be contacted at adam.bienkov@snipelondon.com

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