Boris Johnson: Cities slicker
This article is from the May 2014 issue of Total Politics
Deep inside a cutting-edge medical research centre in west London, Boris Johnson is having his head mapped. As he subjects himself to a prototype 3-D imaging machine, a lurid purple-pink facsimile of the Mayor’s bonce is projected onto a big screen behind him. Posing for the TV crews and cameramen present, he quips: “Maybe you can find traces of brain activity”.
It’s classic Boris: self-deprecating, willing to use his celebrity to help a new venture (a new MedCity bioscience venture connecting London, Oxford and Cambridge) and ever-keen to perform for an audience.
The actual inner workings of the Boris Brain may be beyond science as we know it, and they certainly seem a mystery to 10 Downing Street and the Treasury at times. Speculation about his political ambitions form a constant undercurrent at Westminster, not least because he’s so opaque when asked if and when he may return upriver from his current City Hall home.
He often brushes aside the clamour about his future intentions, preferring to focus on his day job as the chief executive of the UK’s capital. And it’s quite some day job. Boris is in charge of a city of 8 million people, overseeing a budget of £11bn a year, with a direct say in the running of the nation’s biggest transport network and its most important police force.
Mid-way into his second term, he’s just set a budget aimed at delivering 200,000 jobs, 45,000 new affordable homes and 250,000 apprenticeships, as well as a 24-hour weekend Tube, the Heathrow-City Crossrail link, a regenerated Olympic Park, a Northern Line extension to Battersea and a myriad other schemes. Most of his targets are scheduled for before 2016, when he is due to step down.
Johnson’s ‘legacy’ to the capital already seems established, most visibly in the form of ‘Boris buses’, the sleek new Routemasters, and ‘Boris bikes’. His ‘Boris Island’ airport plan is the only bit of the brand that seems doomed to fail, if the Davies Commission comes out against it next year.
Today, as he joins the scientists and entrepreneurs at tech start-up Imanova in Hammersmith Hospital, the Mayor of London is as irrepressible as ever. The 3-D imaging technology has a serious purpose: to scan the brains and bodies of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients who literally can’t stay still in a normal scanner.
And as someone who’s always on the move, Boris is the perfect guinea pig.
The Boris Brain is, to use two of his favourite adjectives, a throbbing, pulsing organ. Its thirst for knowledge, for interaction, seems unquenchable as he flits from one topic to another.
At the formal launch of MedCity, itself an attempt to use City Hall’s cash and coordinating muscle to repeat the success of the East End’s Tech City, the Mayor is the central focus of a lecture theatre packed with academics and business people. As he’s being introduced by his deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse, a bespectacled Boris has his head down, scribbling away furiously on a press release to add last-minute touches to his speech,
His ten-minute address is all about ‘the cluster effect’ of using the proximity of scientists in London, Oxford and Cambridge to create the world’s leading life sciences region. Boris being Boris, he can’t resist riffing on the way London was the scientific capital of the world in the 17th century, when Hooke, Newton, Boyle and other experimental ‘virtuosi’ sparked ideas off each other in coffee houses and bars.
“As someone once said, nothing propinks like propinquity…” he says. The typically erudite joke is a quote from a former aide to JFK and Lyndon Johnson called George Ball. But Boris may have also been thinking of the line’s original use, by James Bond’s American colleague Felix Dexter in ‘Diamonds are Forever’.
To underline London’s historic scientific breakthroughs, he then engages in a call-and-response with the audience, a kind of music hall version of Tomorrow’s World. “Where was the first cash machine in the world?...Enfield!” “Where was the first magnetic resonance indicator turned on, or whatever you do with it?..Come on!...1967 in Sutton.”
He tries again. “Here’s an easy one..where was penicillin discovered?...Yes, Praed Street, Paddington.” The audience laughs as he adds: “penicillin - a very useful thing to have after a night out in Praed Street.”
Finally, the Mayor asks: “Of all the great breakthroughs of the cluster, which was the most significant in changing our view of man’s place in the universe?” Not getting the answer he wants, he tells us. “It’s the theory of evolution! And where was Charles Darwin sitting when the theory of natural selection floated into his head? Bromley!”
It may all sound too light-hearted (at one point, in response to a question about ‘digital health’ from the man from Wired magazine, he says: “What is [ital] digital health?”) but Boris knows just how important the event is. With bioscience the fastest-growing sector of the economy, he is aware just what a struggle it has been to get Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL and others to put aside their rivalries to collaborate on the MedCity project. As ever, Boris is the frontman who delegates to ensure the serious work gets done behind the scenes.
As for all that ‘propinquity’, it’s not just successful business colloboration that it breeds. Michael Gove recently claimed that the reason London was so popular with hi-tech and other entrepreneurs was because of they were guaranteed ‘loads of hot sex’. Is he right?
“It’s totally true” Boris tells us, as he treks back to City Hall on the Central Line, his trusty backpack further rumpling his trademark rumpled suit. “London is now producing more babies than at any time since England won the World Cup in 1966. There’s a huge baby boom going on, last year 36,000 live births.
“If you read ‘Johnson’s Life of London’ [his own biography of the city, published last year], the opening chapter makes that very point. It’s the Cyclotron effect of large numbers of people in one place. A city is a huge centrifuge, it spins people round at much greater velocity than anywhere else, that’s why you have these cluster effects. People meet each other, they have more sexual intercourse as Michael Gove is continually pointing out.
“One of the reasons cities are so successful is that they provide a huge assortment of potential mates - in business and pleasure. That is why people come to cities. The variety and the statistical probability of finding someone is much higher.”
It’s clear he loves his job so much precisely because he loves city life so much. “I spent quite a lot of my childhood on a remote farm, where we didn’t have mains electricity, I certainly love rural life too, but cities are the chief glory of the human race. Cities are the greatest achievement of mankind,” he explains, with a typically Johnsonian flourish.
“I look at London and the way London is developing and I have to say it is absolutely spectacular, in its intricacy and its genius there’s been nothing else like it.”
Expanding on his theme, Boris also cites the fact that in 2005 the human race became urban species, with more people living in cities than the countryside for the first time since we arrived on the planet. “By the time I die, about 80% of us will live in cities. A lot of people watch what we do [in London] and we watch what other cities do. We are doing a lot of pioneering things,” he says.
Yet London’s popularity has not been painless and the Mayor says its rising population – with projections that it will hit 10 million by 2030 - obviously presents problems as well as opportunities.
“If you ask people ‘do you want the population of your city, your country to be a) smaller than it is today, b) bigger than it is today or c) exactly the same size?’ Most people will say ‘we want it at exactly the same size’. But there’s no economy or civilisation that we have been able to study that has enjoyed any long period of economic growth without some population growth as well. And indeed whenever countries have gone into population decline there has also been quite considerable economic decline.”
A serious look furrows the brow under those famous blond locks. “We need a conversation as a country about what we think the ultimate size of the UK should be, because we haven’t really debated it properly. We debate all sorts of proxy issues, we debate the cost of housing, or we debate immigration or we debate pressure on our schools and hospitals. We never actually debate the fundamental issue, which is demography, perhaps because there is no answer.”
“I think these things are self-regulating to a large extent, but we have got to recognise that the huge success of London - which is turning into the world’s capital - has particular problems because it imposes very, very serious challenges to the people growing up here.”
The particularly acute shortage of housing in London is among his most pressing concerns. “No mayor can conceivably be indifferent to the suffering of young Londoners trying to get a home, to the real misery of people forced to endure very long commutes because they can’t afford a home near their place of work. No Mayor of London can conceivably just say let the market rip, we must address this.”
With house prices soaring by 18%, according to the ONS, one solution may not be the Chancellor’s Help to Buy, which Nigel Lawson says should not apply to London.
“It’s a very good point,” he says. “We are not seeing that much Help to Buy in London. It’s 5% [of the national total]. The only thing that matters is supply, the quantum of housing we are delivering and actually it’s starting to turn around and the story is changing.
“You should look at the advertisements in the Evening Standard for hod-carriers and bricklayers and all that, it’s really starting to motor. And I think we are now on target to deliver more homes in London that any time in the last 30 years, [we are about to hit a record, basically because the thing’s finally got going and we’ve made a huge effort.”
He points out that City Hall is making available for housing £3.6bn worth of its own former London Development Agency land. “What we need to do now is recognise that there is much more Government-owned land in London that is doing nothing and could be turned into fantastic housing, particularly NHS-owned land. We need to be given, London centrally, more of a strategic lead on bringing this NHS land to market. And we are working with the NHS and trying to build that up, we are making so quite good progress. There’s huge scope for development,” he says.
Boris doesn’t have much time for the not-in-my-backyard opposition to new homes either. “As a society we need to recognise that we can’t simultaneously feel angry that our children can’t get the homes that they need and yet join Nimby groups that stop good developments from going ahead. And there are many examples of people who do both things at once. There are wonderful sites across London where we can build homes.”
Ever keen on a dollop of populism, he has strong words for the wealthy who have homes in the capital but don’t use them. “The international investment in London is overwhelmingly a good thing, we should not be trying to send people packing. But what we should do is make sure the homes that they buy are lived in either by themselves or by Londoners who need them. So I’m strongly in favour of high or punitive rates of council tax on homes that are left empty for a long time.”
Of course, one reason for the ballooning population of London is not just its attraction to other Britons. Boris says that “excess immigration unquestionably happened under the last Labour government” but stresses the current Government has a responsibility too.
“The problem we’ve got still is we are basically living in cloud cuckoo land…one of the reasons why people are so angry about immigration, it’s not so much the numbers or the impact though they are angry about that, it’s about the continual deceit that we can somehow solve this problem whilst remaining members of the EU with free movement. They can see there’s a massive incoherence in the argument and they think ‘well, what are we doing about that?’ And the answer is well ‘we are not doing anything about it at the moment’.”
Is the only answer to leave the EU then? “We should have much longer derogations [exempting the UK from migrants from new EU states]. I’m not saying we should slam the door. I’m pro-immigration, pro-talent but we should have a much more serious points system than we do now. We should make sure people who come here actually have employment and that can be verified and they should be contributing to society.”
With the European elections coming up, Boris is, like every Conservative, aware of the threat posed by Nigel Farage. In the past, the Mayor’s backing for a referendum on UK membership of the EU has got him into hot water with the party leadership, even though it has endeared him to Tory backbenchers. With David Cameron now fully signed up to an In-Out vote, Boris is firmly on-script and on-message in the run up to polling day on May 22nd, making the point that a vote for UKIP is a vote for Ed Miliband. He watched the second of the ‘Nick v Nige’ TV debates, but when asked how the Tories should best combat UKIP, his answer is simple: don’t give them the publicity they crave.
“We shouldn’t be talking about what other parties are going to do about the European Union,” he says. “We should be talking about what we’re going to do, we should be talking about our policies, and why Conservatives are the only party offering a referendum, and are the only party that can credibly deliver it.”
Nick Clegg is, however, more of a target for him than Farage. Boris picks up on the unusual defence used by the DPM to defend EU migration during the TV debate: ‘you always have problems when you have people’. “Another insightful apercu from the Liberal Democrat leader showing his characteristic grasp of modern politics,” the Mayor laughs, before proceeding on a flight of fancy. “Is it possible to have a problem without people? That’s a philosophical problem. I mean if the universe was not inhabited by people could there technically be such a thing as a problem? It wouldn’t be a problem it would be just an event. There would be no problems. No people, no problems: a Lib Dem crack policy to exterminate the people.”
On that vexed topic of immigration, Boris has a nuanced solution that isn’t just about getting Brussels to curb freedom of movement. Like many in business, he wants the right kind of migrants.
Only this month, Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said the Coalition’s policy was harming British science, with an increasing perception abroad that “our doors are not open” to foreign scientists. Does the Mayor share his worries?
“I can certainly see it. Who split the atom in Cambridge? A guy called Sir Ernest Rutherford. Where did he come from? New Zealand. What have we just done in the last couple of years? We’ve had a 60% reduction in the number of New Zealanders. A brilliant bloody policy.”
Boris has met both the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers to discuss the impact of the Home Office’s crackdown on numbers from the antipodes, as well as on students from India. “If we had to devise from scratch how this would work, this is basically what we should do, you should say to the EU ‘I’m sorry but the system hasn’t been working properly, we should have had longer derogations or different points based systems for EU members and you’ve got to allow us a bit of slack with countries with whom we have unbelievably close ties of kinship and history,” he says.
“I went to Australia last year. I hadn’t been there for 20 years and the stunning thing was how there was this huge and throbbing umbilicus between us. Umbilicus is the wrong word because the relationship is not umbilical anymore, but the connection between us and Australia is still so strong. The cultural links. You see advertisements for Jamie Oliver and British cars and British TV shows.
“And I thought ‘why are we having to set very, very rigid quotas that stop talented Australians like Lynton Crosby from coming to this country.. there’s no limit on the EU?’” He lets rip a titter that turns into a corpsing guffaw at the very mention of Crosby’s name. (Some close to the Mayor felt that Crosby kept him on too tight a leash at the last Mayoral election, refusing to ‘let Boris be Boris’. Crosby’s firm message discipline is ruling the roost in No.10 too now.)
“There’s no reason, in my view, why we need to have completely untrammelled movement from the EU. But on international talent coming to London it’s very important that we are open towards students from India and China and the rest of the world. That we are open to scientists, to investors. You’ll have seen the figures for the proportion of people who come to this country who start up businesses and who create jobs.” He can’t resist adding a reference to his own grandfather: “I myself am the beneficiary of this country’s willingness to receive a Turkish immigrant in 1911.”
Boris’s own solution to one of the problems of immigration is to offer an amnesty to illegal migrants. Theresa May has said his plan would create a fresh ‘pull factor’ for those wanting to enter Britain illegally. Doesn’t she have a point?
“That is the objection. I perfectly understand the objection and Theresa is quite right to raise it,” he says. “But the alternative is to continue in a situation in which half a million people or maybe 750,000 people in Britain most of them in London, not registered, with no papers, contributing to the London economy, making money, but not paying tax. Not paying for the NHS, not paying for social services, not paying for all the benefits that they are in many ways consuming. I think that is in the end crazy.
“Many of these people want to regularise their position, many of them have been here for 10, 12 years or more. The logical thing to do is you either do what I’m saying or you do what the Government tried to do and say ‘I’m sorry if you are not here legally, go home’.” He needn’t add that the Home Office’s ‘Go Home’ vans apparently resulted in just one migrant returning home.
“What we could do, if we are being honest about it, is crack down, round these people up and send them home. If you want to understand why that would not work, just look at what happened with this sad case of this girl at Yarl’s Wood. Yashika Bageerathi. It’s a heartbreaking case in many ways. You can see why Whitehall doesn’t know what to do, because the law says one thing but the people with whom Yashika has now lived and the community that know her say ‘No’.
“The idea that you can go to 500,000 people, most of whom have friends and neighbours and lives in this city and sort of rip them out, de-racinate them, pull them up by their roots, it’s not going to happen. So you continue with illegality and the situation where they can’t contribute to society or else you say let’s look at an amnesty. I would limit it at those who arrived a decade ago. I wouldn’t make it more recent than that.”
In the United States, which has experienced decades of illegal migration from Mexico, the idea of an amnesty has gathered the cross-party backing of senior Senators. Boris thinks the UK ought to catch up with the debate. “You see, we are the America of Europe,” he explains over lunch near City Hall. “People are now waking up to that. Britain is the most dynamic economy, the friendliest place to live, the place where everybody speaks English, the place that’s cosmopolitan, the place that doesn’t mind what type of lifestyle you have, who you are, what your orientation is and basically welcomes you. And say’s ‘you’re British’. It’s very interesting that other countries are now starting to worry about this.
“I remember having this rather tragic conversation with Bertrand Delanoe, the [former] Mayor of Paris, he said to me, ‘joking aside, why are we losing so many people to your city? Look at the numbers. The balance is 19,000 Brits in Paris, 400,000 French people in London. It’s huge and you could tell it’s a real issue now in France: the terrible sense that people actually prefer it in London. London is a massive magnet, there is a sort of Rio Grande factor.
“Yes I accept the point about the pull factor [caused by an amnesty policy], but you’ve got to be more ruthless with the gangs. The answer is be much tougher in controlling immigration, don’t let illegals in, have some exemplary fines for the gangs who organise it, jail ‘em. But then be compassionate to those who have broken the law a decade ago, whose lives are now here. And who are aspirational.”
‘Pull factors’ are something Boris knows all about, of course. Like London, he too is a people-magnet. More importantly, he’s also a vote-magnet for the Conservatives, or at least for his own brand of Conservatism.
Johnson is fully aware that he has the second largest direct mandate of any politician in Europe, after the President of France. Like his predecessor Ken Livingstone,
he’s one of the few politicians in the country referred to by their first name. In an age of anti-politics, he often seems to thrive by tearing up the usual political rules, from dangling on a zipwire to joking about Cabinet ministers. On the day Total Politics spent with him, with Maria Miller in trouble but still being backed by No.10, he quipped to a local TV crew ‘if things were to go wrong for her, there’s plenty of jobs going in life sciences in London’.
Wherever he goes, the public respond. Leaving the MedCity event in White City, he was stopped by a woman looking for publicity for her fresh fruit business. While many politicians and their entourage would have waved her aside, he stopped for a photo on her iPhone, even holding up her company’s logo for good measure.
One insider reveals that just before his second Mayoral election, Boris told a private strategy meeting that “the public want to be wooed…the only fun for them is seeing a politician grovel before them every four years and they want to make them work hard for it.” He certainly works hard at wooing the punters and not just every four years.
On the way to the Tube, a van driver pips his horn in appreciation. On the Underground itself, he agrees to a joint phone ‘selfie’ with a hipster, gives his autograph to a woman in her 30s and helps a mother with her pram. Unstuffy, approachable, open, it’s no wonder David Cameron wants a sprinkle of his stardust to help with the European and local election campaigns – not least because all London boroughs are up for re-election this year. True to his word, he’s been impeccably loyal so far, banging the drum for his party and for No.10.
His relations with Downing Street and the Treasury in particular haven’t always been cordial. Holding onto the city for the Conservatives for another term was a major achievement, he says, not least because of the backdrop of Coalition austerity. “2012 was hard because we had quite a difficult background. We had quite a turbulent period around the Budget which just peaked as we were going in to the final few weeks.”
He’s had to fight hard with George Osborne over funding at times, winning billions for Crossrail and other projects. It seems that the Coalition could perhaps learn from him about how to make an expensive rail line popular with the voters. Why does he think Crossrail has had a smoother ride than HS2?
“We have a problem in Britain, which is we don’t handle these infrastructure projects in the way that they do in France. I’m a big believer in big infrastructure. If you look back at the history of this country, at the history of London, it’s progressed in leaps and bounds when people put in infrastructure. The story of London is the story of people having that vision, that’s why we’ve got to put in Crossrail 2 [connecting South West London with North West London] and all the other things that we are doing.
“But with HS2, we should be more French in our approach. People are in the humiliating position of having to pretend that there’s some environmental objection that they have, that the great crested grebe is going to be invaded or whatever. What they care about is their house prices. They don’t care about…it’s tragic we have protest groups talking about ‘this ancient woodland’ when actually there’s no tree in this country that’s more than 200 years old…most mature trees die at about the age of my age, the average life expectancy of a tree can’t be more than about 60 years. There aren’t that many ancient woodlands around is the point I’m trying to make.
“It’s bollocks. They’re not campaigning for forests, they’re not campaigning for butterflies. They pretend to be obviously, but what they’re really furious about is that their house prices are getting it.”
Like Sir John Armitt, he points out that in fact HS1 led to increases in property values, not decreases. “What the Government should do is do what they do in France and say ‘right, you’ve got a problem?’ and go to every single household with an absolutely massive chequebook and say ‘here you are, what’s this worth now? OK. Brilliant’, buy it and pay them absolute top dollar for all their property. And then when the whole thing goes in and is a success and generates a movement to the area, lifts the economy and the prices go up, well who’s quids in? The Government.”
HS2 faces hostility in many rural Tory seats, but is popular in the cities of the north and midlands. Boris says the Government is right to stick to its guns, not least because his party has to reconnect with urban politics as the demographics head one-way. In the United States, the Republicans are in behind not only among women, young and minority voters, but also behind in urban centres. The Johnson message seems to be that his own party cannot head down that cul-de-sac.
“There are no Labour cities, there are no Tory cities, there are no Liberal Democrats cities. There are cities where you’ve got increasingly sophisticated and affluent electorates who want to hear how a sensible government is going to promote growth and enterprise, keep their taxes down, keep crime coming down, and keep building homes where they need them. Last and probably most fundamental, keep investing in all the things that make urban life work, particularly transport,” he says.
“I got elected on that twice. It’s easy conceptually, very simple, but cities have traditionally been the heartlands of Conservatism, the great municipal Joe Chamberlains and so on. There’s no reason why that tradition should not be recovered. That will be the future of the Tory party.”
To get to that future, he says his party has to show more compassion and more understanding of the poorest. “We’ve got to show that we love urban life and we want to make it ever more attractive, not just for the people who would naturally do well. One of the features of cities is that they tend to produce much more inequality. So Conservatives have got to be aware of that and be the party that not just unleashes opportunity - which we always will be. We’ve also got to be the party that looks after those who are finding it tough and that is going to be a core of urban Conservatism.
“A huge part of urban Conservatism is recognising that in a huge Cyclotron style metropolis like London there will be people who through no fault of their own are not able to enjoy the benefits of the city in the way that everybody else is. And they need looking after. That’s why we [at City Hall] have done stuff like the Living Wage. The Tories should be the party of the Living Wage [at this point, he bashes the table]
“We should say to these companies, we support these companies, we cut their corporation tax, we give them tax breaks, we help them, we champion them. We should be saying to those companies ‘you’re part of society, your shareholders could easily afford to pay the London Living Wage’. In retail and hospitality it is most difficult but there are plenty of other businesses where their business model would make it possible for them to pay the Living Wage. That should be at the front and centre of our campaign.”
Boris says that encouraging families young and old to stay in the city is another key requirement. His 24-hour Freedom Pass and the free travel for youngsters is one of the reasons families stay in the city, he says. “In the old days families used to move out of London. When I was growing up families moved out to Essex or wherever and that has become much less of a problem. Crime has come down vastly and the schools have got much better. Conservatives should be saying to people we understand the particular hardships you’re facing living in the city. Because on the whole if you live in a great city like London your costs are going to be higher, housing costs, transport costs. You’ve got to do things for people finding it tough.”
To the electorate as a whole, he thinks the Tories should be more radical about devolving financial power in order to help his party’s renaissance outside the south east. “I think there’s a big prize for us Conservatives in having fiscal responsibility in the great cities, I think that’s how Conservatives will win in the big cities in England. We can be the party of fiscal responsibility and taxpayer value. And the way to do that is make sure that local governments are elected to purse policies that bear down on council tax and the cost of local government but deliver growth.”
His particular hobby horse is returning to councils a ‘suite’ of five property taxes, including stamp duty, to “give a massive inbuilt incentive to local government to follow policies that promote growth - and at the moment that isn’t there.”
Not surprisingly, the Treasury isn’t very keen on his ideas. “It’s very simple, it’s because they look at the growth of Stamp Duty Land Tax in London and they think ‘that’s huge’, they look at that money washing in over the gunnels and they think ‘my God, we can’t let local government get their hands on that.
“We can sort out that problem. We should be doing a deal with the Treasury so we split the income and go ahead with devolution. Conservatives should be in favour of a strong, local sense of fiscal responsibility.”
But won’t the voters just think that local taxes mean higher taxes? “I don’t think taxes will go up. I think local politicians would have a strong incentive to cut taxation. I’ve been elected twice now on a manifesto of cuts in council tax and I’ve done it. It was one of the real reasons [he got re-elected], people underestimate the power of that message.
“People really resented the council tax increase and they thanked us and were grateful. We made huge savings at City Hall, I don’t say this in any spirit of machismo but under this mayoralty we have cut the cost of City Hall by about £30m a year in just the personnel, we’ve contracted the numbers radically, we’ve merged about five organisations into one. By this time next year you’ll see this mayoralty has closed 12 fire stations, 70 police stations and 260 ticket offices and we’ve taken a lot of very, very tough decisions.”
And if Scotland votes Yes in its independence referendum this September, is it inevitable that more powers will have to be devolved to London and other cities? “Absolutely, I really believe it. England has had nothing from devolution. The great English cities are motors of the UK economy, they hold the keys to the future success of the UK and it would be a stunning thing to galvanise those cities and get them onto really targeted policies…. I don’t think the Scots are going to vote Yes by the way.”
Beyond this May’s elections and the Scots referendum, the biggest test of all for the Tory party is, of course, the general election looming in 2015. Boris says it is telling that Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, Simon Fletcher, is now part of Ed Miliband’s top team.
“I’ve absolutely no doubt that Miliband is trying to run the same sort of election campaign that he thinks almost worked for Ken in London in 2012. He had no real programme, he just found a few things like cutting your electricity bill in a kind of Kenron style thing whereby TfL was going to buy electricity or some mad system. The second thing was obviously a massive cut in fares and the third thing was restoring EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance].
“He said to Londoners ‘Never mind the big stuff, never mind the big picture, what I’m going to do, on the things that really matter to you, I’m just going to cut costs.’
And it was a very tough thing to fight against. But in the end, people don’t believe it. They aren’t born yesterday. They know that the money’s got to come from somewhere. They know that if someone cuts the cost of their fuel bill, somehow or other they are going to be paying for it, whether it’s because energy becomes more expensive in the long run or whatever.
“And we were able to fight that off and to defeat Livingstone on that cost of living agenda because in the end people wanted something bigger and they wanted something better and even though times were still very tough in 2012, they wanted to hear what the city was going to be like and why post-Olympics it was going to be a great place.”
Again, he offers the Prime Minister and his ministers his strong support in the fight against their common political enemy. “I think they are playing a blinder. Let Miliband spout this nonsense, let him pretend there’s all this fool’s gold, funny money, Wonga-style money he can give people and they won’t fall for it. I think the worst mistake would be to try and match it.”
“We will defeat Miliband if he continues with this approach because in the end it’s not credible. It doesn’t offer any real long term solution to the country’s problems and people want to hear something bigger and broader. I think what Dave is doing now is absolutely right. The language about positioning Britain in the global economy, about Britain’s strengths, he’s always out there championing something we’re good at. The stuff we’ve been doing this morning, the life sciences, he’s been very good on. On infrastructure, he’s been good. It’s the sense of progress. Although they are seductive and they are tough politically to fight,, when people say ‘I can cut the cost of this or that’, in the end they don’t believe it.”
One of the reasons Boris won in London in 2012, and in 2008, was that he managed to cross the class divide. On the campaign trail, he’s cheered by the White Van Man vote, plasterers, brickies, window cleaners, market stall holders, all the so-called ‘C1-C2’ voters the Tory party desperately needs for a majority government. How does he manage to do it, while the PM and George Osborne struggle? “People want to know what you’ve got to say about them and not what you’ve got to say about you,” he answers simply.
One area where David Cameron seems determined to shrug off the Eton tag is in his choice of school for his children. Like Michael Gove, the PM is set to send his oldest child to a state secondary in central London. In the modern age, is it politically impossible for a Prime Minister to use private education for his family? (He and wife Marina sent their four offspring to independent schools once they’d left their state primaries). Boris sounds unimpressed. “I think people want to know what your programme is for the country, what you’re going to do for education. I don’t know. I’ve been doing for this job for six years and nobody’s bothered me about my kids’ education.” So he’s never even considered it to be a political issue? “No… I think people don’t give a monkey’s.”
As with his family, the Mayor considers his chequered private life as off-limits. Still, there’s no question that the Boris ‘pull factor’ has attracted several women over the years. Yet having never preached fidelity or monogamy, few can accuse him of hypocrisy and it seems the public ‘don’t give a monkey’s’ about what he does in the bedroom.
In fact, women voters account for part of his popularity. In the 2012 race, he had a whopping 18% lead over Ken Livingstone among female voters. From Mumsnet Q&As to BBC voxpops, women seemed captivated by his rogueish charm. Both admirers and critics alike claim that he ran for office under the Boris brand rather than the Tory brand. When asked why he has such a big lead in the women’s vote (something the PM lacks), Boris becomes momentarily coy. “I have no evidence to suggest that is true,” he mumbles. “…all this boils down to…I think it’s very difficult to extrapolate from London elections to wider national elections..”
But he has no such caveats when it comes to his ability to attract Labour switchers of all sexes, again a precondition of any Tory majority Government in 2015.
“I think lots of Labour voters are rally disheartened with Miliband” he says. “People don’t know what he stands for. He’s neither fish, flesh nor fowl. What’s the point of Miliband? He’s doing this terrible thing, this Fletcheresque [another reference to Simon Fletcher, Livingstone’s former chief of staff] nonsense of making these boutique offers to people.”
But is the Labour leader onto something when he talks about voters’ worries over insecurity caused by globalisation? Boris is magisterially dismissive. “No, no. the best thing you can do, to get Britain absolutely roaring on the global stage and to increase our lead over our competitors in Asia and the Gulf and everywhere else is….to export Miliband! Get them all to have the Miliband seminar on why capitalism doesn’t work, just as they are discovering it. Nobody else around the world listens to this nonsense.”
Yet over in New York, it seems that newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio got elected on the back of a Milibandesque manifesto, didn’t he? “Well. I think there were particular circumstances in New York,” Boris replies. “We are watching New York with great attention. We work very closely with New York, and yet obviously we are competitors. And we will see what Mr de Blasio actually does, by way of taxation reforms and other measures and see what impact that has on New York’s effectiveness.”
He doesn’t go quite so for as to suggest that de Blasio could lead to an exodus of business and entrepreneurial talent to London, just like Francois Hollande appears to have, but there is a hint of it. “Let’s see. If what some of his left wing supporters say is true about him, then there could be an interesting opportunity for London. We will have to see.”
Boris admits that he was “very much flying a kite” in his first mayoralty election campaign in 2008, but he is proud of the London he will leave behind in 2016. “When I came to be mayor in May 2008 the status of London as the world financial centre, as a great city, was under serious question, and people we’re saying, ‘Mumbai, Dubai, bye-bye’, you know, they were all saying ‘London… you lost the crown as the financial centre, this was the epicentre of the great global financial crisis, it’s all over.’ Six years on, you look at where we are: the money coming into London, the investment coming in, it’s extraordinary, and most people now say that London is extending its lead as the number one capital in the world.”
He rattles through a prospective legacy: a substantial fall in crime, investment in transport such as the Northern Line extension and the start of Crossrail, the redevelopment of the East End around the Olympic Park in Stratford: “You can’t imagine this sort of thing happening ten years ago.” And much of that, he argues, is down to him: “We wouldn’t have got the Northern Line, the bikes and the buses…. Lots of things wouldn’t have happened.”
Boris insists that his “appetite for power has long since glutted”, but it's clear that his appetite for the job of mayor hasn't been sated at all. “I do enjoy it. I’m lucky I’ve got a lot of energy. But, you know, I’ve got to get on. A lot of the things I have talked about are still semi complete and will take a lot of driving through.” And it won’t be easy to give up the levers of power at the heart of a capital city, and he admits that some projects, such as plans to regenerate Crystal Palace, “will be very painful not to complete”. Instead a successor, perhaps a Labour mayor like Tessa Jowell, will claim the credit. “I’m sure she will… that’s the nature of politics.”
That line about not being around to see the completion of some of his plans is confirmation once more that he won’t be seeking a third term in 2016. It was another Johnson, Samuel, who famously said that “when a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life”. Boris is tired of neither, yet now that he’s made up his mind he will step aside, inevitably the speculation focuses on where he’s heading next.
His admirers say that he could be an MP in 2015 and still serve out his term as Mayor for one more year. Under one scenario, if he becomes Tory leader, he could lead his party to a landslide in 2020. Boris’s pulling power among finance is another factor. He persuaded both Barclays (who fund his bikes) and Emirates (which funds his under-used cable car across the Thames) to stump up millions to back his pet projects in the capital. At a recent private gathering of big Tory donors, all the talk was that they’d bankroll Boris like a shot if he should run for leader.
Sceptics say that he’s too old, too unserious, too scheming (all of which he’s tried to vigorously disprove as Mayor). Others think he’s showing a Hamlet-like indecision over his future, the Prince over the Water (City Hall is the other side of the Thames from Westminster, after all) who can’t make up his mind.
Sometimes, Boris doesn’t even need to say or do anything for his future career prospects to make the headlines: recently Michael Gove was reported to have got a little too refreshed at a dinner party and declared that the Mayor lacked “gravitas” and was “unfit to lead the nation.” Reminded of the comments, he refuses to bite.
“We’re all working together on getting David Cameron re-elected. And that’s the mission. All of this stuff, I think I’m at one with the vast majority of the population that wants to hear a lot less about what other Conservatives have got to say about each other and much more about how we’re going to win the election and get on with doing great things for the country” is his careful reply.
But where Gove has stated unequivocally that he is not “equipped” to be PM, Boris is unable to give the same definitive answer. He could just stop the speculation once and for all if he wanted to? “I think seriously, at the risk of labouring this, I think what people want to hear is about our collective candidate for prime minister which is David Cameron and what he is going to be doing.”
It’s a reply which does nothing to answer the “what will Boris do next?” question, and neither does his well-honed art of deploying a bit of ancient Greek rhetoric. “It’s what we call an adynaton, something that is most unlikely to happen…water more likely to flow up hill, hell freezing over, that sort of thing.”
He won’t even give a give a clear answer on whether or not he will seek a seat at the 2015 general election. “I refer the Honourable Member to the answer I gave a moment ago,” he says. “People want to hear a lot less about, you know, my career and anybody else’s career, and they want to hear a lot more about number one, how are we going to stop Miliband, who I think would be disaster for this country, and number two, get on with a serious programme for Conservative reform of Britain. The more we navel gaze… let’s look forward.”
But could that be to the Palace of Westminster? With David Cameron describing Boris as a “great striker that you want on the pitch”, how will the Mayor respond to the Prime Minister’s selection call-up? “My job is to help the Tory cause in any way that I can, by running London to the best of my ability" is the equally well-rehearsed reply. "I’ve got more than two years to go. Big mandate. A lot to fulfil.”
He could, of course, return to the Commons and remain in City Hall at the same time, When it’s pointed out that Ken Livingstone managed to serve as both MP and Mayor back in 2000, Boris, perhaps with a hint of playfulness, wants to know more.
“Was he really? How long did he do it for?” he asks. Just over a year. “Really?"
And a year from 2015, of course, is all Boris needs to fulfil that second term.
“Yeah,” he agrees, before asking again: “Did he?”
So is he intrigued by the idea of being both Mayor and MP? “Well, I was [both] briefly,” he replies, pointing out that for a few weeks in 2008 he remained as MP for Henley after entering City Hall. So it is possible? “My plans are for London”, is a reply which rules nothing out
His father Stanley, who has argued that “it just wouldn’t be reasonable if Boris somehow was not able to be a candidate”, has called for the party’s rules to be changed to allow non-MPs to stand. But senior Tory figures believe that the party’s constitution would indeed allow him to stand in any leadership contest even if decided not to return to the Commons
“Is that true?” Boris asks, again intrigued. “I wouldn’t be surprised. After all, the party has been led from the Lords many times. I don’t think it has been led by somebody who has not been within the Houses of Parliament altogether…”
But if Stanley has got it wrong on this occasion, Boris is happy for the encouragement, joking that he is “always grateful for my father’s brilliant interventions.”
The Family Johnson sticks together, but there is also a competitive streak at its heart. Jo Johnson, Boris’ younger brother, is the Tory MP who now heads the Number 10 Policy Unit. For now, he is a step or two closer to the Cabinet than Boris. “Absolutely. I rejoice in his success,” Boris replies. But it must sting a little too? The Mayor smiles. “A little piece of me dies, but otherwise I rejoice in his success.” He sounds like he’s only half-joking.
One way for Boris to accelerate his march back to Downing Street could be a pre-arranged job-swap, with some suggesting that he has already shaken on a deal to take on Zac Goldsmith’s Richmond Park seat in return for giving the photogenic Tory MP his backing in a run at the mayoralty. Boris doesn’t rule it out. In fact, he reveals that the plan has won the backing of a key demographic at City Hall.
“The biggest supporters of that are all the women in my office who are massively keen on the Boris-Zac job swap,” he confirms. “In a very insulting way, they’ve told me in no uncertain terms the sooner I can swap with Zac the better as far as they are concerned. That’s the position there.”
As for cutting to the chase and swapping with David Cameron, Boris laughs at the prospect of Mayor Dave following the career path of Alain Juppe, the French prime minister who later became the Mayor of Bordeaux. “I’m sure he’d be an outstanding mayor but that’s not an office I think he’s seeking. His plan and my plan is to ensure that he is Prime Minister.”
Only recently the PM finally got away from it all by taking a holiday to Lanzarote. When he’s not being Mayor of a city that never sleeps, how does Boris like to relax?
“I relax very, very easily,” he says. “I paint.” Watercolours? “Everything…I tell you one thing, I may not be much good but I do think I’m slightly better than George W Bush. Did you see his paintings?” He chuckles gently over the lunch table.
“I try to occupy my time with writing. I while away an idle hour by crunching out the odd bit of journalism. This may sound absolutely scandalous but I find YouTube just perfect for music. I know it sounds pathetic, but I have my laptop and I’m writing something on it and I have Brahms on YouTube, any number of different things you want, whether it’s the Haitink, whatever it is, you get, it’s all there.” Does he use Spotify? “No I don’t understand that. YouTube I understand, it’s fantastic.”
A pile of books is never far away either. “I read a lot. I read that ‘Gone Girl’ thing, it’s very good. I’m reading a load of plays by David Mamet. I’m reading Lady Elizabeth Longford’s life of Wellington.”
And, in a classic bit of Johnsonian Classicism, he even partakes in that utterly Victorian pastime of translating Latin pieces…for fun. “I’ve got a project to translate Tacitus’s histories. I believe in keeping the old machine going a little bit,” he says.
It’s that Boris Brain again, ever trying to find ways to get a proper workout.
It’s a brain so big that it can hold several apparently contradictory thoughts at once. He admires the centralised French-style disregard of Nimbys, yet wants more fiscal devolution and local power. He wants an immigration cap and a debate about the size of the UK population, yet is in favour of an amnesty for illegal migrants. EU migration seems bad, Anzac migration good. He can spend large sums on pet projects like the new Routemaster (and worries if his successor will ditch it), while making cuts to spending that involve closing police stations, fire stations and Tube ticket offices.
The Boris style too is complex. Despite cultivating the impression of an amateur, he’s often more professional than many at Westminster. Even his comic touches are a mixture of the scripted and improvised, refining his best gags as he goes. To some, he may look like the Buster Keaton of politics, a very sophisticated buffoon. He loves the vernacular, but is never afraid of using a Classical allusion or literary reference, talking in complete sentences or admitting to nuance.
In many ways Boris is just like the London he represents. Complex, multi-layered, at times confusing and contradictory, his own seething multitudes as engaging as they are frustrating.
It will take more than the latest in brain-scanning technology to reveal exactly what Boris Johnson wants to do next. But in the coming months his destination looks like it may get a lot clearer. With or without a mind-map.
“We shouldn’t be talking about what other parties are going to do about the European Union. We should be talking about what we’re going to do, we should be talking about our policies, and why Conservatives are the only party offering a referendum, and are the only party that can credibly deliver it.”
Boris on… Rachel Johnson’s ‘poverty safari’ Twitter kicking
“I didn’t see it, but how can you get a Twitter kicking unless you actually read Twitter? I’m sure I get a Twitter kicking the whole time. I don’t have the faintest idea. Anyway, we’re about to introduce the dot London domain name. I’m going to be Boris dot Boris dot Boris…”
Boris on… Nick Clegg’s warning that “you always have problems when you have people”
“Another insightful aperçu from the Liberal Democrat leader, showing his characteristic grasp of modern politics. Is it possible to have a problem without people? That’s a philosophical problem. If the universe was not inhabited by people could there technically be such a thing as a problem? It wouldn’t be a problem it would be just an event. There would be no problems. No people, no problems: a Lib Dem crack policy to exterminate the people.”
Boris on… privately educating his children
“I think people want to know what your programme is for the country. Nobody has bothered me about my kids’ education. People don’t give a monkey’s.”
Boris on… Ed Miliband
“The best thing you can do, to get Britain absolutely roaring on the global stage and to increase our lead over our competitors in Asia and the Gulf and everywhere else is….to export Miliband! Get them all to have the Miliband seminar on why capitalism doesn’t work, just as they are discovering it. Nobody else around the world listens to this nonsense.”