IT comes to something in politics when the two individuals being talked up the most as the next Prime Minister are not even in the House of Commons.
As David Miliband announces his resignation as an MP amongst persistent mutterings that he would still make a better Labour leader than his brother, and Boris Johnson sends the “plot-against-Cameron” rumour mill into over-drive with a series of national media appearances, it’s shaping up into a proper circus.
It is all very entertaining, but you may well ask what is going on. If I was an ambitious MP, I would be wondering whether all those demanding constituency surgeries and late-night House of Commons voting marathons were worth it, and asking myself if there was a quicker way to the top – to turn myself into a “personal brand” and attempt to sell myself to the voting public like soap powder.
What need for the established political and democratic process when you have television, Twitter and a jaded public desperate for a bit of titillation to do your campaigning for you?
Whether you subscribe to the Boris-for-Boss theory or not, you can’t deny that he’s providing plenty of material for the speculators.
That Michael Cockrell BBC documentary showed a few sides to Johnson we didn’t expect, including a difficult childhood which shaped his competitive nature. London friends tell me he’s the best thing that’s happened to the city for years, and women seem to swoon over him.
I am trying to find a place in my own heart for him, but Boris just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t suppose it matters much whether he does or he doesn’t though. Plenty seem to worship him unconditionally, falling for the bumbling buffoon act he has perfected. And why should I, living in South Yorkshire, care a jot about the mayor of London? I never give the mayor of Newcastle a second thought, or consider whether the leader of Birmingham City Council is doing a good job.
Until now, Johnson has shown little reciprocal interest in anything north of the North Circular, except to make disparaging remarks about the sentimentality of Liverpudlians when hostage Ken Bigley was beheaded in Iraq. His ill-judged piece in The Spectator magazine, citing also the Hillsborough tragedy, caused such uproar that he was forced to go to Liverpool and apologise in person.
Johnson’s star, rapidly on the ascendant during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, has generally eclipsed such painful past gaffes. However, the Cockrell documentary, and a blistering interview conducted a few days earlier by the BBC’s Eddie Mair, has pushed him into the limelight in a way even he must not be entirely comfortable with. For a long time now, he has been protected by his London set, appointing allies as advisors, surrounding himself with an uncritical coterie who applaud unquestioningly at populist initiatives such as his cheap-to-hire “Boris Bikes”.
Propelled by ambition, he now finds himself under national scrutiny. How he reacts to this, and what happens next, will be more a test of his character than anything which has gone before.
And by this, I mean “character” rather than “personality”. It is important, in these turbulent political times, that we do not confuse the two. Sound leadership is about more than the ability to make cutting comments on Have I Got News For You.
If Johnson is to progress to higher political plains, he has to provide a depth and maturity that has not been much in evidence thus far. The country, as he found out to his cost in Liverpool, is a lot more complicated than Kensington and Chelsea.
Likewise the elder Miliband. For as long as most of us can remember, “the Milibands” have been cast as a pair, with the narrative of two brothers fighting it out to be top dog dominating our understanding of what each might be capable of individually.
How long David plans to spend working for a charity in New York has not been specified, but some are already saying that it will be just long enough to allow his younger brother to fail spectacularly before he sweeps back in again to reclaim the crown so cruelly dislodged in the 2010 leadership contest.
As with Johnson, there is that underlying assumption that the logistics of the lack of a Parliamentary seat will sort themselves out.
As with Johnson, there is the motivation of revenge. In Miliband’s case, it was his younger brother launching a last-minute stand against him. With Boris, it is the hurt at being left out of Cameron’s front-bench brigade and being “encouraged” to run for mayor to keep him out of mischief, a ploy Cockrell’s film did little to dispel.
With such machinations, we must exercise caution in where we place our loyalties. I know it is tempting in these times of tedious austerity to fall for the exciting conquering hero, but circuses – and particularly the Westminster one – are all illusion, smoke, mirrors and cunning tricks.