From the beginning, the London Olympics has been a tale of two Tories. And it seemed clear that one of them – the suave, chiselled household-name athletic hero who was officially running the Games – was going to come out the victor.
The other – the staggering, infidelity-ridden hot mess of a mayor, who had no genuine role in the Games – was going to be an embarrassment, a flop, the man blamed for every traffic jam and no credit for the glory.
And yet the precise opposite has occurred. Despite being a national treasure, a four-time Olympic medal winner and a well-liked Tory parliamentarian, Sebastian Coe has flopped miserably. After charming Britain during the five-year runup to the Games, he somehow transformed himself during 2012 into the most stiff-necked sort of humourless Olympic bureaucrat.
Perhaps it began when Lord Coe declared that spectators wearing Pepsi t-shirts or Nike shoes would probably not be allowed in, as the official sponsors were Coke and Adidas (government officials contradicted him). Or perhaps this weekend, when Lord Coe stubbornly insisted, against ample photographic evidence to the contrary, that the Olympic venues were “stuffed to the gunwales” and there were not hundreds of unfilled seats. Or dozens of similar statements in which he has defended advertisers and urged the general public to stay in order.
Whatever it was, the British public has soured on their Olympian. “He has now been reinvented,” London’s Independent newspaper observed, “as a corporate apologist-cum-reality softener.” Nobody is talking about a bold political future for him any more – at best, a smooth escape.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, on the other hand, has been hailed as the most beloved politician in Britain – in large part by poking holes in all the high seriousness and trashy self-importance of the Games administration, but also by eagerly embracing the very thing that Tories are meant to hate but which makes Olympics possible: Big government.
When, shortly after becoming London’s second-ever mayor, he appeared in the stadium of the Beijing Games in 2008, it nearly sunk his political career. Dishevelled, unkempt and awkward, Mr. Johnson seemed to have pulled himself out of bed minutes before taking the stage, fumbling a flag ceremony and generally showing little respect for all the pomp around him.
Now, four years later, he is displaying exactly those same qualities – to the considerable delight of many British audiences, who have had far too much pomp, ceremony, and Lord Coe-style lecturings on how to behave and what to feel.
Boris, despite being a politician to the right of Prime Minister David Cameron, has managed to please both conservatives and many to the left of him by popping that bubble – in part by openly mocking Lord Coe’s corporate fealties, but also by embracing the mass phenomenon with gusto and clownish abandon.
Or in the words of a column published Monday in the left-wing Guardian, not normally given to praise someone as right-wing as Mr. Johnson: “Johnson stands out in a profession devoid of personality.”
As a result, a poll published Monday showed him the man most likely to replace Mr. Cameron as Tory leader after the next party convention.
The Times of London celebrated the mood of Boris-Mania on Monday by splashing a column by Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential right-wing web site ConservativeHome.
“There are too many people on the blue side of politics who are relentlessly negative about what this country has become and about almost everything the government funds that doesn’t involve truncheons and missile,” Mr. Montgomerie wrote.
“The person who most convincingly rejects both the pessimism and libertarian purism of the angry brigade also happens to be the most successful Tory in the country… is there another politician in Britain who could get the rock-star reception that Boris Johnson received in Hyde Park last Thursday? His compelling world view should be at the heart of tomorrow’s Conservatism.”
Mr. Johnson mentioned nothing about his red-meat Tory beliefs: He is opposed adamantly to the European Union and almost any other kind of union, he wants to lower taxes sharply, and he is an outspoken defender of the elite, exclusive schooling that produced him.
Instead, he takes advantage of the classic mayor’s position – as a disburser of state funds who has little fiscal power – and used it to embrace the things that both left-wing and most right-wing Britons love, the modern, multicultural world and the big, well-funded state. While other Tories tut-tutted at the warm embrace of public medicine and racial equality offered in Friday’s opening ceremony, Mr. Johnson was all over the media lauding it.
“He knows that the gay rights revolution is here to stay and he’s joined London’s Pride march wearing a pink cowboy hat,” Mr. Montgomerie said. “He thinks that immigration has been largely good for Britain. He thinks that the working poor deserve a higher ‘living wage.’ He wants the State to make Olympic-sized investments in railways and airports to pull Britain out of recession.”
And much as fiscally restrained, tough-on-crime leftists broke through the background noise of grumbling in the 1990s to govern Britain for two decades, there is a sense that the flop-haired jokery of optimism may have won the political Olympics.