On Thursday, we say goodbye, metaphorically, to London Mayor Boris Johnson. After two terms, he is not running (or standing, as they say over there) for a third in Thursday’s election. He gets scant attention in the U.S., but he deserves Americans’ notice because he has been highly successful on the whole, and fans of Donald Trump may be tempted to compare their candidate to him. There are in fact plenty of similarities, but beware; they’re entirely misleading.
When Johnson announced he wanted to be London’s mayor, virtually no one took him seriously. He was a larger-than-life character who became famous by appearing on TV long before he ran for mayor. He was a frequent guest on many programs, beloved by producers for his distinctive mop of blond hair and his propensity for blurting outrageous views on practically anything he was asked about. Clearly not a serious candidate. But in the Conservative Party’s primary election for mayor, he astonished the supposed wise men and women of the political world by winning.
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The establishment remained adamantly opposed. Peregrine Worsthorne, a very old-school newspaper editor (with whom I once had tea and toast with anchovy butter at the Garrick Club), said the more Johnson tried to be serious, “the more insincere, incoherent, evasive and even puerile he looked and sounded.” But he delighted voters, telling them, for example, “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.” In the general election, against a very liberal Labour candidate, many Londoners supported Johnson apparently just because it was a poke in the eye of the established governing class.
All these parallels with the Trump saga bring us to the equivalent of the present moment in the U.S. As for what happened next in London: Johnson won, of course, and proved to be highly popular. His campaign promises had been modest – the London mayor doesn’t wield much power – but he largely made good on them; crime is down, mass transit is much improved and more widely used, and a vast bicycle-rental system (Boris bikes, everyone calls them) has caught on in a big way. He was re-elected in 2012, just before London hosted the summer Olympics, which were widely regarded as a major success for which Johnson received much credit. He maintained a high profile and became even better known. He’s going out as controversial as ever – vigorously supporting Brexit – and on his own terms.
Is the lesson that the #NeverTrump crowd should calm down and realize that Trump, too, could win and prove a surprising success? No, it isn’t. The differences between the two are more important than the similarities. Johnson was a member of Parliament for seven years before becoming mayor and had risen to vice chairman of the Conservative Party, which was then in the minority, and shadow minister of education. He was deeply familiar with the issues and with politics. He was not a professional politician; he made a living as an editor, prolific author, and columnist. While irritating the establishment, he was also of the establishment; he’s a direct descendant of King George II. Most important, he is, despite his penchant for being shocking and funny, a thoughtful man.
It’s highly tempting to note the eerily similar paths of Johnson and Trump, but ultimately they don’t work to Trump’s benefit. He’s no Boris Johnson.