LONDON (Reuters) - London’s maverick mayor Boris Johnson is riding high in opinion polls, his popularity apparently bolstered by the Olympic Games, making him - at least in some quarters - the favoured candidate to replace Prime Minister David Cameron one day.
A poll conducted for the Independent newspaper published on Monday showed Johnson has emerged as Conservative activists’ first choice to replace Cameron, with 32 percent wanting him to take the top job in British politics when Cameron steps aside.
Instantly recognisable thanks to his unruly mop of blond hair, Johnson has long been popular with grassroots Conservative supporters who revel in his eccentricity and love his often politically-incorrect jokes.
But though his star appears to be in the ascendancy, the poll showed that party activists saw no immediate risk to Cameron’s premiership.
Half of respondents still wanted Cameron to be leader at the next election - due in 2015 - according to the survey of 1,419 Tory activists conducted by the influential ConservativeHome website for the Independent.
“Boris’ ... barriers to becoming Tory leader remain the same whatever the Tory grassroots might think of him. Tory MPs still wonder if he’s serious enough,” Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, said on the website.
With the economy mired in its second recession since the 2008 financial crisis, Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government has struggled in opinion polls, lost seats in local elections and faces growing public doubts about its economic strategy.
Left-wing critics often hold Cameron’s privileged background against him, saying he is out of touch with ordinary voters. But Johnson, despite his own upper-class background, has managed to project an image as a quirky and outspoken man of the people.
Mayor since 2008, Johnson - often spotted on his bicycle around the capital - has been in charge of transport and policing in one of the world’s busiest cities in charge of an annual budget worth about 15 billion pounds ($24 billion).
He stepped onto the world stage in Beijing in 2008 to receive the Olympic handover flag on behalf of Britain and has promised to use the London Games to help regenerate rundown working-class areas in east London.
He has always jokily played down his chances of becoming prime minister. Asked last month on The Late Show with David Letterman whether he was aiming to get into 10 Downing Street, he said he thought his chances were slipping away.
“I’ve about as much chance as being reincarnated as an olive,” he quipped.
The Olympics could however provide a further boost to Johnson’s standing if the rest of the Games - which kicked off on Friday - go as smoothly as the first few days.
Johnson, who was born in New York City, won kudos from all corners of the British political spectrum last week when he publicly chided U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney for suggesting London was not ready for the Olympics.
Coming just weeks after a revolt against Cameron within his own party that damaged his authority, the poll’s findings will be carefully digested by the Conservative leadership, which is battling to hold together an already fragile coalition government.
According to the poll, George Osborne, the finance minister and a close ally of Cameron long considered the front-runner to succeed him, was supported by only 2 percent of respondents.
A majority of Conservative activists are pessimistic about their party’s chances of staying in power, the poll showed, with 53 percent of Tories polled believing the opposition Labour party will win the next parliamentary election.
Editing by Andrew Osborn