ID: How has being London mayor differed from what you expected on your first day?
BJ: It’s infinitely better and more difficult.
Difficult in what way?
Just the complexity of running a big city. Like any job over a period of several years it gets easier after the first year. For the first 18 months it’s always pretty tough. But after a while you start to understand how it works, where the bends are, where the joints are and you start to work out how to make things happen. So it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for someone who was a... shadow whatever-I-was in the Tory party…
You’ve forgotten already!
... and basically a journalist, but it’s been incredible fun. The single most difficult thing we’ve had to deal with is the impact of the worst recession we’ve had for 50 years. We’ve had to work extra hard to try to protect Londoners and to keep things moving. One of the difficulties you face is that people will say, ‘Listen, times are so tight, things are so tough, you should just concentrate on getting the Tube moving, keep the buses going, cut costs, protect people in every possible way.' We’ve done that – we’ve cut huge amounts of waste out of the system. We’ve held fares down as low as we possibly can and we’ve done a huge amount to give people skills and opportunities. But in the end, this is a great city with a great future – you’ve got to keep projects coming and you’ve got to keep chucking the ball down the pitch for us all to chase after.
What might have you done differently if the recession hadn’t happened?
I would’ve liked not to have delayed Crossrail by a year or not to make some of the very considerable savings that we’ve made in Transport for London (TfL). It would be wonderful instead of having just two cycle super-highways to have 12 within one big bang so everybody could see it. I would have liked to have done the cycle hire scheme all way out west. You’re obliged to cut your suit to your cloth, or whatever the expression is, and that’s been tough. There are things that we’re going to do that we’re having to do with private backing – we’re building this enormous moving thing in the Olympic Park. It’s the biggest piece of public art in the history of the country and we have had to get private money to do it. We’re going to put a cable car across the Thames, and we’ll put some money towards it but we’ll need private backing as well.
How frustrating is it when you’ve got control over a certain amount of the budget but a lot of it comes from central government? There have been well-publicised supposed spats between you and George Osborne. Give us a flavour of those negotiations.
The mayor of any capital city is always going to have stresses and strains with government. There’s no doubt that there was a long and scratchy period when we were negotiating the TfL budget settlement. That took an awful lot of doing. Everyone will remember there was a period where people were saying: ‘Crossrail? Forget it.' But I was told several times by senior cabinet ministers that Crossrail was just not going to be something the coalition could deliver given the funding constraints they were under. Then I was simultaneously told that we couldn’t have the upgrades of the Tube because it was all too tight. But those two criticisms were nothing compared to the very serious reservations the Treasury had about continuing with support for free travel for older people in London or for young people or all the travel concessions. I had a huge amount of pressure coming in from all sides, saying: "These are luxuries. Crossrail’s something that could easily be shelved – no one’s even heard of it." About two years or 18 months ago, the advice given to me was to stop talking about Crossrail. Just don’t mention it, take it off the oar.
Who was saying this?
I can’t tell you. People in government. The message was "you’re going to create a political problem for yourself". I thought that was complete madness, because even if you have high-speed rail bringing in huge number of people to mainline stations in London, you need Crossrail. The central line can’t possibly cope with that volume of passengers. So we won that argument and then we had to win the argument about the upgrades.
But how did you win the argument? Were you saying: "Look, I can’t win next time if I don’t get these things done"?
In politics there’s an air war and a ground war in all big budgetary arguments, and you’ve got to win both. The air war is literally going on the airways and talking about it, the ground war is talking about it and making the business case. To give George [Osborne] and Dave [Cameron] their due, they did understand that there is a strong business case for Crossrail. What the Treasury has really now got is that London is the motor of the economy – London drives this thing. If you starve London of energy and growth potential, what’s going to happen to the rest of the country?
But why are you the only politician effectively sticking up for the City of London? You don’t hear anybody else saying anything about it at all.
We’re entering a very weird political climate, and we have been for 18 months or two years. We’re in danger of becoming really adverse to wealth creation and hostile to wealth creators as a country, no matter whether they’re bankers or anybody else. I have to say that alarms me. Of course I want to see bankers – as I was telling old Paxman last night, just to drop a name – doing their bit, and I want to see a much greater sense of euergetism and philanthropy or whatever you want to call it. It’s incredible that you’ve got the gap between rich and poor opening up now in a way we haven’t seen since the Victorian epoch. But what we haven’t got that they did have in the Victorian era is that sense of duty on the part of the real titanic figures who are making them money. In those times people really thought it was disgraceful not to endow schools and hospitals and libraries. I’ll tell you what’s happened – and you won’t be able to print all this – what’s really gone wrong is that in America it’s thought acceptable to give and be publicly identified as being generous and a big person on the stage of giving. In Britain we don’t like that and we’re nervous of it. People that have money are nervous of being seen to give in that way. So you see people who have shedloads of dosh who just go buy grouse moors or something.