Is Boris Johnson the British Berlusconi?

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, May 20, 2012

Italian journalist friends, perhaps tired of explaining the latest twists in the saga of Silvio Berlusconi, have been keen to draw my attention to the shortcomings and peculiarities of our own politicians. Take Boris Johnson for example. He has been described to me by one Italian journalist as the nearest British equivalent to Silvio Berlusconi. Of course this comparison doesn’t hold up for many reasons. For one thing, Berlusconi is a uniquely Italian phenomenon, whose path to power was driven by a long-running political crisis in Italy, a defunct political class and crucially aided by his enormous wealth and power as the owner of much of Italy’s media. It is difficult to imagine that a politician with such power could come to office in any other Western European country. Moreover his darker side, of alleged mafia involvement, numerous court cases on charges of bribery, corruption and sex with an underage prostitute, are beyond anything Johnson has been accused of. Italy’s recent history and political characteristics have little common with Britain. However, there are nevertheless some features that Boris shares with Silvio. One is his habit of breaking the rules and conventions of national politics and indeed making a virtue of it. In Berlusconi’s case this was reflected in attacks on magistrates, gaffes on the European stage (once likening a German Social Democrat MEP to an SS Kommandant and making Frau Merkel wait while he took a phone call) and later flaunting his sexual indiscretions, which seemed to boost rather than dent his poll ratings at home. Despite criticism from foreign journalists, this initially had no adverse effects on many ordinary Italians who tolerated, in some cases, admired him, for it. Boris has also been outspoken and gaffe-prone on many occasions. Controversially, in 2004 he accused Liverpudlians of ‘wallowing’ in their ‘victim status’, for which he was required to apologise by then Conservative Party leader Michael Howard. He has also had extra-marital affairs but there is little evidence that his philandering has done any harm to his political standing amongst the electorate, despite his sacking as Shadow Arts Minister by Michael Howard after knowledge of his long-standing affair with Petronella Wyatt became public. According to Sonia Purnell, who has just published her biography of the unpredictable Mayor of London, Johnson maintained that ‘whom he slept with had no bearing on his fitness for political office and he believed that revelations of his philandering were motivated by “snivelling and short-sighted” attitudes and jealousy’. * This comment was typical of Berlusconi’s reaction to press interest in his private life but is still unusual in British politics where the ability of politicians to carry out their public roles still seem conditioned for many by an uncontroversial private life. This may yet change if Johnson’s long-suffering wife Marina becomes tired of his indiscretions. Even in Italy, it was arguably when Berlusconi’s wife Veronica Lario made public her anger at her husband’s infatuation of younger women that the sequence of events which led to his departure were set in place. Another important similarity is that, like Silvio, Boris does not have any clear ideology. This might be surprising given his desire to experiment with different schemes and his willingness to espouse strong opinions on most subjects. Yet a close look at his policy priorities as Mayor suggest a moveable feast; attracting, for example, claims of being both pro and anti-environment, both encouraging and annoying the city’s cyclists at regular intervals. While firmly on the right on economic questions, he is clearly more liberal on other issues than many of his fellow conservatives. Like Berlusconi, it is Johnson’s populism, and in particular the use of his celebrity status to popular effect, that marks him out as an ambitious contemporary politician. Populism, as we know, often claims to offer radical change, yet in reality it often leads to the entrenchment of power and the defence of the status quo. This is what happened in the case of Berlusconi. It may yet lead to Johnson’s downfall. It may be that both men are so fixed on their own ambitions that conventions, ideologies and policy agendas inevitably get left behind. Sonia Purnell quotes Johnson as admitting that he supported David Cameron’s Conservative leadership campaign out of ‘cynical self-interest’ and his career since then, which saw him first win the conservative candidacy to stand for London’s mayor and then defeat Ken Livingstone in the 2007 election itself, demonstrate more of this unwavering ambition. He has become the most likely successor and potentially biggest threat to David Cameron from within his own party. On balance then, no Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (to give his full name) is not the British answer to Berlusconi. Rather his style of leadership, his pursuit of power and status as a celebrity politician puts put him in a similar category to others around the world in the media-driven age when many political parties and conventional politicians have lost their way.