Pythagoras – in one of those rare moments when he wasn’t thinking about triangles – once mused that ‘choices are the hinges of destiny’, a rather poetic phrase which I think encapsulates the dilemma currently facing Boris Johnson. Boris, an accomplished classicist, could not only give you the Pythagoras quote in its original Greek but must also be familiar with the Latin phrase : ālea iacta est (“The die is cast”) – Julius Caesar’s words upon crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC. Sometime before Conservative Party Conference at the end of September, the Mayor of London must decide whether or not to re-enter Parliament, effectively rolling a dice on his political future.
The party leadership and the serried ranks of the commentariat have made it clear in recent weeks that the dithering and delay must end and a decision be made. If he does decide to head back to Parliament, I would expect him to make his announcement in the wake of the likely Conservative rout in the elections on 22 May. He could thus depicting himself as a reluctant hero, forced to give up his post as Mayor of London (and break several unambiguous public pledges) to ride to his party’s rescue; the only politician that could deliver a possible general election win for his old school mate David Cameron.
Returning to Parliament carries significant risks for Boris. Abandoning his responsibilities as Mayor ahead of the formal end of his term office will cost him support in the capital and will make it much harder for the Conservatives to retain control of City Hall in 2016. Even if he decides to serve as an MP and Mayor simultaneously he will find all those age-old accusations that he is just a part-time Mayor will resurface. Re-entering Parliament would also reignite all the rumours and speculation about his leadership ambitions, and bring a renewed media interest into both his previous record and his private life. It will also hint that some senior Tories – Boris included – are not confident of a Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election. After all, why else give up being Mayor of London unless it is to pursue the party leadership? Boris may also find his ambition is thwarted by defeat in the leadership contest or, if Cameron wins the election and there is no contest, find himself relegated to towing the party line as a Cabinet Minister and bound by the straight-jacket of collective responsibility.
But not standing for Parliament is also fraught with risk. If, sometime after 22 May, he appears outside his front door and declares that he will not be running for a seat but instead focussing on his day job as Mayor of London, it will seem like he has bottled it. British political history is littered with examples of ambitious politicians who blinked when their great moment came. The verdict of history is rarely kind in such circumstances. Just as Michael Portillo failed to seize his moment and challenge John Major for the Conservative leadership in 1995, and Gordon Brown ran scared of calling an early General Election in 2007, Boris Johnson may join the list of great political ‘what ifs’, effectively becoming the RA Butler of his generation.
Of course, Boris might decide to wait until 2020. He may decide to keep his promise to the people of London and see out his term as Mayor. He might even complete a third term. But by then new contenders will have entered contention including his own brother, Jo Johnson. A new leader may have been elected in a contest Boris was unable to enter. Events – whether in the form of a major policy failure, a health scare or simply one mistress too many – may overtake his ambitions.
The next few weeks will be make or break for Boris Johnson’s political career. Anyone with an interest in the future of UK politics will be watching the Mayor, his movements and even his body language for any indication of his intent. The Mayor cannot pause on the banks of his personal Rubicon indefinitely.