Profile: Boris Johnson

When you're born with the name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, you're never going to pull off being a man of the people.

To his credit, Boris never tried. Instead, the London mayor walks a tightrope many would find impossible, but which he handles with relatively ease. He projects an image of himself which plays up to his class background but does not make him look entirely incompetent. It shouldn't work. He should come across as an unelectable clown – fine for Have I Got News For You but not to be taken seriously on the campaign trail. And yet it does work.

The reasons for this are not immediately clear. It is tempting to think that he has reached the upper limit of what this approach offers. Londoners are prepared to accept him as mayor because they do not really consider the job to be that important. Some say Boris will inevitably go for the Tory leader's jobs at some point. It is then that we will see if it could go further than City Hall.

The extent to which Boris' baffled, flustered, classically literate, charming persona is the real him is much debated. Some say it is a defence mechanism. Others say it is a political ploy, designed to paper over a hard-right Tory agenda with a presentable, TV-friendly performance. Some claim it is simply Boris. Whatever it is – it works. Boris is several points ahead of the Conservatives on popularity, while Ken Livingstone languishes behind Labour.

There is little about the Tory incumbent which is not the subject of controversy. Even his political activities at university, where he was elected president of the Oxford Union at his second attempt, are hotly contested, with some claiming he presented himself as a Social Democrat party supporter to get the position. This frantic desire for power is an unsurprising quality for the son of a high society Tory MEP. As a child, he called himself the 'world king'.

Boris' rise after university was extremely fast, in a manner which only Bullingdon Club attendees have any chance to expect. He became a trainee reporter for the Times almost instantly before being sacked for falsifying quotes. He then retreated to a regional newspaper for a short spell before returning as leader and feature writer for the Telegraph and then moving up to assistant editor. It was during this period, in 1995, when he was accused of plotting with a friend to physically assault a News of the World journalist. He then began working for the Spectator. He stayed at the magazine after he was elected to Henley in 2001.

The requirements of journalism and politics are similar, but ultimately inimical. Journalism demands that someone be interesting, whereas frontline politics is often best conducted by being harmless. That discrepancy came to blight Boris' time as a journalist-politician.

In 2004 an editorial in the Spectator attacked Liverpool for mawkish sentimentality, unwisely using the death of British hostage Kenneth Bigley and the Hillsborough disaster as examples. The row that followed saw then-Tory leader Michael Howard force Boris on a humiliating trip to Liverpool to apologise.

It was not journalism which triggered his first sacking, however, but the London mayor's other weakness: women. Howard eventually decided he had lied to him about a four-year affair with the Spectator's New York correspondent Petronella Wyatt, despite Boris' protestations that the accusations were "an inverted pyramid of piffle".

When David Cameron appointed him shadow higher education minister in 2005, Boris dropped the Spectator job, although he kept his well-remunerated column for the Daily Telegraph. A year later, new allegations of infidelity, this time with Times Higher Education Supplement journalist Anna Fazackerley, emerged.

This chequered personal history does not weaken him. In fact, it helps play into the sense that he is an amusing character who voters enjoy having around for a bit of light-hearted relief. Opponents have despaired at his inability to shrug off rows which would have finished off other politicians at once.

Here is Boris on gay marriage, in 2001: ""If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog."

Here is Boris on Islam: "To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers… What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is someone going to get 18th century on Islam's mediaeval ass?"

When Boris ran for mayor it was assumed that these controversial asides would finish his candidacy. And that even if they didn't, Londoners would balk before handing power to a man more used to the TV studios than the daily grind of elected office. Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby was responsible for proving these assumptions wrong. During election races Boris is unmistakeably himself, but much, much more boring. He sticks to simple messages. He appears tired and bored. He is Boris, but greyer, as if the soul has been sucked out of him. This, in political terms, is a good thing, because it means he can survive the endurance contest of potential gaffes which elections constitute.

In power, Boris' administration seemed aimless and beset by difficulties. Apart from the Boris bikes, which were leftover from Ken's administration, and the new Routemasters, which were insanely expensive and hard to find, most Londoners would struggle to mention a single policy initiative accomplished by the Tory mayor.

What Boris lacked in policy he made up for in political scandals. A spate of resignations followed his arrival, including that of the much-touted deputy mayor for young people Ray Lewis, who was accused of financial misconduct when he was a priest. Later, Met commissioner Ian Blair stepped down following a meeting with Boris in which he concluded he did not have the confidence of the mayor. Concerns were raised about executive interference in the police.

Boris found himself in trouble again when he interfered with the arrest of then-shadow immigration minister Damian Green, contrary to the London Assembly's Code of Conduct. His decision to later talk to Green led to a formal complaint and fears he was publicly prejudging the outcome of the police inquiry. At one point, it looked like the Standards Board for England, the Greater London Authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority would launch investigations. In the end Boris was cleared on all counts.

None of these scandals really touched the London mayor in the eyes of the public, who continued to enjoy his antics on the political stage. His joke that "wiff waff is coming home" at the Chinese Olympics or his fall into a river during an anti-litter photo opportunity are far more widely-referred to than any of the rows which beset City Hall.

That is the simple genius of Boris: voters – even some Labour voters – want to see more of him. They feel he brightens up their life a little bit. The position of London mayor is actually more powerful than they realise, not just due to transport, but also because of power-grabs by Ken on housing and Boris on policing. Nevertheless, it is seen as a largely symbolic position and the contest is therefore one of personality. It's only when Boris goes for a leading position in Westminster that we'll see how far his projected persona can shield him from politics.