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  1. Wealth
May 2, 2013

If Boris Johnson Wants to be PM he has to Work on his PR

By Spear's

Boris Johnson may have the charm and wiles of a classic Old Etonian, but he can forget about the top job until he learns to deal with the tough questions, says Edward Amory

What to be PM? Work on Your PR

Boris Johnson may have the charm and wiles of a classic Old Etonian, but he can forget about the top job until he learns to deal with the tough questions, says Edward Amory 

ETON IS A study in the art and science of reputation. Not only does it have an incredibly strong public image of its own, to which people react in different ways but nearly always strongly, but it also teaches its alumni the value of their personal brand and reputation. 

When Boris Johnson was at Eton, he was elected as a school prefect, a member of ‘Pop’. At that period, Pop was a self-selecting oligarchy of the most popular boys in the school. To get in, you had to canvass, but not be seen to do so. You had to court popularity while pretending that you didn’t care a fig for public opinion. 

In a sense, this reflects a wider truth about the success of Eton and its alumni. While going to great pains not to be seen to be trying, Etonians are in fact deeply focused on success. But they understand that often too direct an approach can, in Britain, become a barrier to achievement. 

Modern UK politics in particular has been cruel to the most overtly ambitious. Some, such as Michael Heseltine, were denied the prize that they wanted far more than anyone. Others, such as Gordon Brown, only managed to grasp it when it was too late. The less publicly pushy, such as Tony Blair and John Major, found their ascent far easier. 

Which is why Boris today is such a fascinating study. His success so far has been a classically Old Etonian exercise in the art of subtle self-promotion. He has striven daily to achieve, while remaining desperately determined not to be seen to be trying. Along the way he has contrived to win the office of London mayor twice, the second time in the face of deep hostility towards the Conservative Party of which he is nominally a part. 

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This success is admirable, and he’s done it while remaining true to some robust free-market views, associating himself with several iconic policies (Boris bikes) and shrugging off complaints about a rackety personal life. 

But his position is now becoming more exposed. The poll weakness of the Conservative Party and its fractious backbenches have turned attention to the pretenders to the throne, of whom Boris is the most substantial. This scrutiny brings with it substantial reputational risks. 

First, as Boris discovered when he was interviewed by Eddie Mair, others may try to build up their reputations by destroying yours. Mr Mair’s questions were more than legitimate, and Boris will need to come up with more robust answers to them. 

However, it was hard to escape the sense that the interviewer was also trying to establish his own reputation within the BBC by biting off a bit of Boris, rather than acting as a genuine seeker after truth. 

The other risk, of course, is that you gradually find yourself forced into a position where your ambition becomes more clearly articulated. Boris’s decision to cooperate with Michael Cockerell’s BBC2 documentary, Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise, is understandable, because it reinforces his position as the heir apparent in the Tory party. But in the programme he has for the first time admitted that he would like to have a crack at the prime minister’s job, ‘if the ball comes loose at the back of the scrum’. 

Of course this is no surprise to anyone in Westminster. Boris has never quite accepted that another Old Etonian, who didn’t make it into Pop, has become prime minister rather than himself. But saying so in public breaks his self-imposed taboo — making him at one and the same time more substantial and more vulnerable. 

SO CAN HE survive such scrutiny? Of course. But now that he has taken this route, Boris needs to adopt more conventional PR tactics. He needs to do an interview or series of interviews in which he explores every bit of his past and offers convincing and sympathetic explanations for events. 

He then needs to develop robust and brief answers to questions that he should have seen coming long ago. And he needs to become more directional about forcing ambitious journalists like Mr Mair back on to ground of his own choosing. Most voters would accept a point-blank refusal to discuss his love life. 

In other words, he needs to demonstrate that he has not only the Old Etonian tactical brilliance required to do the top job, but also the trait that allowed Mr Cameron to become prime minister: the strength and ruthlessness to cope with intense and hostile public scrutiny, which is not something that you learn at Eton, or any other school for that matter.

Read more from Edward Amory

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