Feature: A tale of two Tories - Boris overshadows Cameron at London 2012

David Cameron and Boris Johnson at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony
David Cameron and Boris Johnson at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony
Ian Dunt By

Not long after Gemma Gibbons beat Audrey Tcheumeo of France to enter the women's judo final, David Cameron and Vladimir Putin entered the ExCel Centre. She got away lucky. She'd escaped the Curse of Cameron.

Alas, they were still there an hour later, when she faced Kayla Harrison of the USA. Of course, she promptly lost. Her failure could have been the result of inferior training, strength or tactical preparation. Or it could have been the ominous presence of the prime minster, who seems unable to watch a sporting event without inflicting damage on his favoured sportsperson.

Earlier in the week he watched Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield in the men's synchronised diving, only for them to botch a dive which would have seen them earn a medal if performed to their usual standard. On Saturday, his presence on the Mall saw British cycling star Mark Cavendish fail to live up to expectations. Weeks earlier, he was front and centre at of the royal box when Andy Murray came crashing out the Wimbledon semi-final. Slow motion footage showed him grimacing throughout.

Everywhere Cameron wasn't, Brits scored significant victories. Jess Varnish and Victoria Pendleton broke the world record - admittedly for only a few minutes - in the cycling team sprint. Shooter Peter Wilson fired his way to Olympic glory. Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie were victorious in the two-man canoe slalom. Fellow Brits David Florence and Richard Hounslow took silver.

The 2012 Olympics are cementing the impression that Cameron's looming visage spells tragedy. But across the capital, in City Hall, the sun is beaming on his most dangerous challenger for the throne of the Tory party.

Where Cameron casts a dark shadow on everything he sees, Boris Johnson has turned into the golden boy. He is treating the Olympics as the most excessive self-promotion festival ever launched by a British politician. Just as the Boris brand of stuttering wit is beamed into American living rooms and turned into a global phenomenon, the London mayor has enthusiastically embraced his stereotype.

He can simply do no wrong. Even his screw-ups are further evidence of his genius for public relations. When his zip line broke down over Victoria park yesterday, the mayor was left for several minutes - cheap Union Jacks in hand, stomach bulging, trousers creeping ever-upwards – issuing urgent requests for a ladder. He looked absurd, but it boosted his reputation even further.

"If any other politician was stuck on a zip wire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it's an absolute triumph," Cameron spat. Across the political divide, Labour MP Stephen Pound felt the same. "People will love him even more for this," he said. "Everyone I've spoken to said: 'Good old Boris'."

Compare that to the way Jeremy Hunt was treated when his Olympic bell nearly took a woman's face off.

Speaking to crowds in Hyde Park just before the Olympics, the mayor was demonstrating his uncanny ability to get a public that hates on-message politicians. He may be the only British politician capable of this extraordinary feat. "We are going to get more medals than the French, aren't we?" he chanted, to cheers from observers. It’s remarkable any politician could get away with that statement. Then, in a cheerful bit of abuse to the Republican presidential candidate, he added: "There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're ready. Are we ready?"

Boris' star is so high, he can do what he likes. He invited Rupert Murdoch to the games with him the other day. Given the media mogul's current popularity, it was equivalent to having a picnic with a North Korean general, but there was little comment about it. Meanwhile, the controversy over empty seats is hammering Seb Coe, but not Boris. The G4S debacle ruined the company's reputation and hurt Theresa May, but it doesn't touch the London mayor.

As their fates move further apart, Boris has even taken to issuing cheeky little barbs at Cameron. "I hope he will take part - isn't he a dab hand?" he said, when he found out Cameron and Putin were attending the judo together. "I think that's what people want to see - stripped to the waist. We want the politicians' Olympics, that's what we want."

Standing next to the buff Russian president, Cameron was forced to issue a jokey retort. "I look forward to taking the president to the judo at the Olympic park, but I note that we will be spectators and not participants," he said.

Boris' success isn't simply down to his bumbling, easy-to-love persona. He is also playing his usual canny political tricks. Several Olympic festivals paid for with funding by the Arts Council, Locog or the National Lottery had mayor of London branding stamped on them. Other free events were funded out of Londoners' council tax, but the mayor jumps on these as freebie celebrations as well. Others pay – he gains.

It's starting to benefit him in concrete political terms. A YouGov poll for the Sun today showed Labour's lead would be cut to just one per cent if Boris took over the Tory party. A survey for ConservativeHome puts him well ahead of Tory members' favourites to take over from Cameron. His nearest challenger, William Hague, was a full eight points behind. The man always considered his main rival – George Osborne – has just two per cent support.

He's still miles away from turning fortune into political glory – not least of all due to the difficult business of becoming an MP and challenging for the leadership without looking like a traitor. But the London Olympics are quickly turning into the tale of two Tories. And Boris is coming out firmly on top.


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