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Boris Johnson and the Angel in the Marble

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Boris Johnson is the darling of the Tory grassroots. From the pulpit of his Telegraph column he has hurled bread to his Tory base. His support for tax cuts, higher police numbers and his stance on Europe reveal a populist streak. He has earned the affection of ordinary Tory voters in a way no other Conservative politician, including David Cameron, has managed.

That is not to say Boris Johnson is a Tory ideologue. He is a very much a Tory pragmatist who has tried to appeal to the liberal metropolitan London electorate with substantial increases in the London Living Wage, criticism of housing benefit reform, and support for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Appealing to the outer suburbs will not be sufficient for a successful re-election campaign. Getting out the vote will be his first priority and that means he has to appeal to a very broad range of people.

This approach has risked making attempts to identify Boris Johnson's political philosophy like nailing jelly to the wall, but his appeal to the traditional Tory base and the wider liberal metropolitan electorate has been reconciled by the man himself:

"I'm a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country. I want London to be a competitive, dynamic place to come to work."

This is reflected in his impressive record as Mayor (see my earlier blog here), with greater investment in public infrastructure, falling crime rates, and the freezing of council tax. But Boris seems to lack a singular, large achievement that people can easily identify.

By contrast, Ken Livingstone has developed his own narrative by attempting to transform the Mayoral Election into a referendum on 'Osbornomics'.

Boris Johnson's personal popularity and impressive record may be enough to secure a second victory but it will do very little for the Conservatives in London. Polling puts the party well behind Labour. This may well mean that the Conservatives will lose the London Assembly but, more seriously, it will also mean a lack of support in the London constituencies that are needed to win the next General Election in 2015, such as Hammersmith.

Boris Johnson must use his time in power to see the Conservative voter in the London electorate as a sculptor sees "the angel in the marble", as the Times claimed Benjamin Disraeli once did. There are limitations to the Mayor's powers, but the key to establishing a wider Tory base could lie in his 'One Nation' vision.

One of the basic foundations of 'One Nation' conservatism has been the 'property-owning democracy', as popularised by Anthony Eden and first made a reality by Harold Macmillan's ambitious 1950s housing programme. Boris Johnson could take this one step further by establishing a new generation of property-owners, and therefore more likely to vote Tory, by implementing a Right to Own scheme, as proposed by five Conservative MPs in 'After the Coalition'.

Under the Right to Own scheme tenants of social housing would have an automatic share in the equity of the property which they could then choose to sell onto the open market. The equity owned by the tenant would then be used to help pay for a new private property and thus begin to climb the private property ladder. The rest of the money from the sale of the property would then go to the new 'mayoral development corporations', which will replace the London Development Agency, and be invested into new modern social housing to meet ever increasing demand in London. This would drive down housing prices and open up access to private property in London's deprived areas, thus increasing the number of property-owners in London.

Coverage of this year's mayoral election will inevitably focus the personalities of Boris and Ken. But Conservatives cannot lose sight of the long-term future of the party in London. A new generation of homeowners, supported by efficient infrastructure, effective policing and a prudent City Hall would provide a new Tory base in London from which to secure an overall majority in 2015.

This article first appeared on the Egremont blog on 6 January 2012.