We elect politicians to protect our interests. On Monday evening, Nov. 2, London's flamboyant mayor Boris Johnson spontaneously extended that remit to include the bodily protection of a woman he spotted being threatened by teenage hoodlums, one of them wielding an iron bar. Their would-be victim, Franny Armstrong, director of the film The Age of Stupid and founder of the 10:10 campaign to persuade governments, organizations and individuals to cut carbon emissions 10% in 2010, actually cast her ballot for Johnson's rival, Ken Livingstone, in last year's election. But after Johnson's daring rescue, she told the British daily Guardian, "If you find yourself down a dark alleyway and in trouble, I think Boris would be of more use than Ken."
It's far from the first time that Johnson, speedily christened "Have-a-Go BoJo" by London's admiring tabloids, has won over political opponents. His 2008 victory relied not just on the Conservative Party's mobilization of support for their candidate in the city's leafy suburbs but also on traditional Labour supporters who overcame their antipathy to his party to vote for him. Armstrong resisted Johnson at the polls but has succumbed to the gallantry of her rescuer, who cycled after her attackers a gang of girls before returning to escort her safely to her front door.
The burly mayor is unlikely to have felt many qualms about confronting muggers. A former schoolmate, talking to Johnson's biographer, described his subject as an "absolute berserker" on Eton's rugby fields. Johnson's career, both in journalism and in politics, has been marked by a fearlessness that not infrequently borders on the suicidally reckless. He rarely keeps to agreed party lines, recently incurring the wrath of Conservative leader David Cameron by going dramatically off-message on the party's European Union policy last month, provoking a Cameron aide to send him a Mafia-style text message: "La vendetta è un piatto che va mangiato freddo," or "Revenge is a dish best eaten cold." Johnson, using the florid turn of phrase that is his hallmark, continues to insist his relationship with Cameron is one of "glutinous harmony."
Unusually direct wiring between brain and mouth would be a liability for most politicians. Although this characteristic is forever getting BoJo into scrapes, it's all part of his broad appeal, suggesting a kind of wacky, jovial authenticity that plays well on television. Johnson is something of a star of the small screen, a veteran of game shows as well as serious news programs. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown disparaged Johnson in a recent interview with Piers Morgan in GQ, saying, "I don't think people want politicians to be some sort of subset of the entertainment business." Polls of Londoners and Conservative grass-roots voters suggest that's not entirely true of Boris. A poll of London voters taken this spring, a year after Johnson moved into City Hall, found 46% to be satisfied with the way he is doing his job, compared with 21% who were dissatisfied. Johnson scored a hefty 92% satisfaction rating among Conservative voters in another survey marking his first year in office, conducted by the website conservativehome.com.
Everyone loves a joker, but that doesn't mean they can envisage him in high office: 43% of respondents to the conservativehome.com survey felt Johnson wouldn't be a credible candidate for Prime Minister. There are signs, too, that the Johnsonian charm may be wearing thin on some Londoners even the drivers of the capital's fleet of black taxis, once BoJo's most passionate advocates, who complain that he has yet to deliver on campaign pledges to get London's clogged streets moving again. After some high-profile actions early in his term including the ouster of Metropolitan police chief Sir Ian Blair, the banning of alcohol on the subway, and his backing for a proposed new airport to the east of London Johnson seemed to lose steam. Few voters could tell you what he's actually done for his city apart from increasing its general gaiety.
In fact, one of Johnson's key initiatives has been to look at ways of reducing teenage crime. Proposals range from compelling troubled youths to join organizations like the Scouts to funding literacy and numeracy drives for deprived kids. Tackling teenage muggers wasn't one of his recommendations, and the police have warned the public against following Johnson's potentially dangerous example.
But Armstrong has nothing but praise for her savior, describing BoJo as her "knight in a shining bicycle."