When a rocket launcher trundled into the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony for the Games, my neighbor in the stands thought he had guessed the identity of the human cannonball who would shortly be propelled from its barrel. “It’s Boris,” he said. Wrong. The white-clad figure did indeed prove to be a blonde comedian, but it was Eric Idle, a founding member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Just days before, Boris—or to list the sackful of names London‘s mayor has shouldered since birth, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson—had been left dangling after a failed attempt to ride a zip wire at an Olympic event. On this occasion, the greatest upstager in modern politics chose a more conventional route to the podium for his final Olympic duty, the handover of the flag to Rio, the 2016 host city. His appearance drew cheers of a volume equaled only by those that greeted the Spice Girls, all five of them, Baby, Ginger, Scary, Sporty and Posh.
Posher Spice, descended from King George II and thus related to the Windsors and several other European royal families, is that rarest of oxymorons, a popular politician. “The Geiger counter of olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale!” he declared before the Games, but in truth the Geiger counter of Boriso-mania is also buzzing. London 2012 has given Johnson’s signature blend of erudition and slapstick a worldwide platform and hitched his star to an event hailed globally as a triumph. At a press conference convened with the mayor of Rio, TIME asked Johnson if he felt he had won as big as Usain Bolt at the Olympics. “The big winner in this whole business has been not just London but the brand of the U.K.,” Johnson demurred. It was left to a clutch of opinion polls in Britain’s national press to highlight the mayor’s Games’ dividend, not only because he emerges in every poll as Conservative voters’ top choice to take over from Prime Minister David Cameron, but because the newspapers that commissioned the polls felt such a question worth asking. Cameron, Johnson’s Old Etonian schoolmate, expects to serve as leader of the Conservative party and the country at least until parliamentary elections in 2015.
However the government Cameron leads is widely disliked and his bromance with his Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, formalized after the 2010 elections in a coalition agreement celebrated in Downing Street’s rose garden, has curdled. On the final day of the Olympics, Cameron again summoned journalists to the rose garden to meet a paramour. This time the object of his affections was Sebastian Coe, two-time Olympic gold medalist, former Conservative MP, now serving in the House of Lords and latterly as the chairman of the cumbersomely named London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. Cameron thanked Coe, effusively, for the Games’ success and listed a number people and institutions entitled to share Coe’s laurels. These included former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led the bid, ministers past and present, “and those working quietly behind the scenes.” Johnson, never known for keeping quiet, merited the most fleeting of mentions.
And on most bureaucratic assessments of Johnson’s contribution to the Olympics, that’s about right. He has been a huge asset to the Games, as a jovial Master of Ceremonies, the right mayor for the right place and time. He lifted the mood before Team GB golds rolled in, and became a totem for many of the British characteristics Danny Boyle sought to showcase in the opening ceremony, the mildly deranged humor, the appearance of chaos that overlies purpose. But Johnson could not be considered integral to the Games’ organization, as Coe was. Johnson wasn’t even elected mayor until 2008, three years after London won its bid for the Games. He was distracted during the run-up to the Games by the need to secure his own re-election, which he duly did, in May 2012. The mayor’s office has been closely involved in Games preparations. Boris has certainly played his part, but not to the exclusion of his other interests, as a supposedly full-time politician, documentary-maker, book author, TV show panellist and columnist for the Telegraph newspaper group. “This is no time for triumphalism,” he warned in his Aug. 13 column to mark the end of the Olympics. “This is not the moment for pointless displays of irritating flag-waving jingo. It is? OK.”
The joke mirrors the nifty political footwork that has seen Johnson garner credit from the Olympics without appearing to seek it, and to gather grassroots support for the idea of a Downing Street sojourn while acting innocent of any such ambition. As the Olympic euphoria fades and bills come in and the process begins in earnest of assessing what went wrong as well as what went right, he’s likely to prove equally nimble. But even if mud is slung, and spatters, it may not stick. Johnson appears blessed with an invisible coating; scandals and gaffes that would kill many political careers slide off him to pool at his feet. The married politician survived a sacking from the Conservative frontbench after lying about a four-year affair, weathered criticism after dismissing his annual £250,000 fee from the Telegraph, about 10 times the average national income, as “chicken feed,” and invited Rupert Murdoch to be his guest at an Olympic swimming event. In the past he has been forced to apologize to a whole city (Liverpool) and a whole country (Papua New Guinea), but has built a fan base that stretches across the U.K. and the wider world.
That achievement is down to Johnson’s other political superpower: the ability to transcend party politics. A social liberal and small-state, free-market Conservative, Boris is revered by the Tory party base who believe him to be a proper Conservative, unlike Cameron with his smooth metropolitan ways and Lib Dem dalliances. And Johnson appeals to a raft of voters who would never usually contemplate voting Conservative but spot in the cycling, mirth-making, Latin- and Ancient Greek-speaking, freewheeling politician a quality they find irresistible: authenticity. Johnson radiates a kind of What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get confidence, each slip-up and delinquency simply enhancing that image. The clever, subtle, tactical Boris remains largely hidden.
Skeptics question whether the magic formula would work at the highest level in politics. (New York-born and a dual U.S.-U.K. citizen, Boris could theoretically set his cap at Downing Street or the White House.) It’s hard to imagine Johnson ordering troops to war or capturing a mood of national mourning as pitch perfectly as he has resonated with the Olympic spirit. Once that spirit has faded, he’ll find himself facing “huge challenges” as mayor, as Cameron pointed out during the rose garden presser. A little over a year ago, London and other cities erupted not with pride, but resentment.
Still the buzz around Boris grows louder. Downing Street is decked out to celebrate London 2012 with flags and a flower bed planted with the Olympic rings design. A running track has been laid to the door of Number 10. The starter gun has yet to fire but if you look closely, you may see a burly, flaxen-haired figure crouched and ready for the race of his life.