Boris Johnson and the rise of the London mavericks

London has seen a power shift. A new generation is taking the city by storm, snubbing the old ways, and making their presence felt by sheer force of personality.

Personality, and its careful deployment, will get you far in London. Just ask Boris. His dangling from a zip wire while clutching two Union flags had been heralded as a PR triumph even before he had been winched to safety, while the awkwardly staged shot of slacks-and-polo-shirt-clad Cameron watching boxing on TV was an unmitigated publicity disaster. We just didn’t buy it. There is no substitute for being yourself. Our Mayor knows this better than anyone, but he is not alone.

This was the key lesson I learned while producing a documentary about London in collaboration with Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the US, and the man who was once instructed to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there”. His task with this, his latest television series, Networks of Power, was not dissimilar, although I’d perhaps use a more delicate phrasing: to use all of his diplomatic skill to get under the skin of the top movers and shakers in six cities around the globe. And with Sir Christopher disarming our interviewees with his trademark charm, we really did get to find out what makes them tick.

With each location shoot, a portrait emerged of the city: New York, conformist and inward-looking, yet still laying confident claim to the American dream; Mumbai, teeming, vibrant and optimistic, despite the vast gulf between rich and poor; Moscow, apprehensive about what another six years of Putin will bring; Rome, eternally fascinating but depressed in the grip of economic crisis; Los Angeles, sprawling and image obsessed. Finally turning our attention towards our home city was a daunting task; it seemed so vast, so diverse, so constantly changing, there were so many stories that we could have told, from so many spheres. Our interviewees were a varied bunch, apparently united only in their success in climbing the greasy pole to gain influence in London. But soon other unifying factors emerged: a certain maverick streak, a forceful personality, and a disregard for the established rules.

First, there was Irvine Sellar, the straight-talking former East End market trader and the driving force behind the Shard, who had succeeded where others had failed. He had taken on the heart of the establishment and won, and has now changed London’s skyline for good. Then there was newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, who could undoubtedly thank his immense family wealth for his new-found sphere of influence. But his honesty was refreshing: yes, he did expect to talk to politicians in return for shelling out millions to turn around a bunch of ailing newspapers, thank you very much. The success of these two individuals is emblematic of a real power shift in London, and a move away from the hide-bound society of old. You won’t find Lebedev in the gentlemen’s clubs of St James. Mainly, he confided, because he has not worn trousers for years and they get all sniffy about jeans.

Our London interviewees all seemed comfortable in their own skins. There were few PR advisers hovering nervously in the sidelines. In other cities, as you might expect when dealing with the great, the good and the immensely wealthy, we were faced with scrupulously media trained individuals, who would smile and dole out the platitudes. In LA Mayor Villaraigosa called upon an assistant to check our shot, presumably to see if it was a suitably flattering angle. India’s richest woman, Nita Ambani tried to sell a sugar-coated vision of her philanthropic works while neatly batting away any suggestion that her 27-storey Mumbai megamansion was anything other than a normal family home.

So it was a relief to meet Louise Mensch, who has made a political career out of straight talking and was in a typically combative mood on the day of filming. Gone, she said, were the days of the polished politician who never puts a foot wrong. And what of the old adage of it’s not what you know, but who you know? “Absolute rubbish”, according to Louise, stating with pride that while she had never belonged to a country set or a city set, she had been part of the road crew for Suicidal Tendencies during a big Guns N’ Roses tour. It was this varied hinterland that she felt had given her the edge in politics. 

Louise then confounded us all by resigning as an MP shortly after our interview. But then, that’s the thing about mavericks, they don’t play by the rules. Few would bet against her coming back to politics, and since resigning she has nearly doubled her Twitter following. That’s real influence.

And then there was Boris. Like the Olympic opening ceremony, he seemed to sum up the character of London itself: quirky, eccentric, a bit bonkers. Arriving for interview brandishing a copy of his latest book, he proceeded to wave it around throughout, proclaiming his mastery of soft power. It’s hard to imagine the Mayor of any other city engaging in such shameless and comedic self-promotion, but we’ve come to expect it from Boris, it seems somehow original, authentic. He attributed his success in the mayoral race to the fact that he had presented himself as something of an outsider, a pirate. That, and his multiple appearances on Have I Got News for You

Maverick he may be, but Boris still remains the very epitome of the establishment, and clearly his Eton and Oxford roots did him no harm, despite his attempt to jokingly brush these off as “natural disadvantages”. So, whether or not you buy into the Boris bumbling, if it is in fact a façade to hide fierce political ambition, there is no doubting that he is playing London’s power game better than any other.

Networks of Power: London will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic HD at 9pm on Tuesday 14 August.


Boris stuck on the zip wire.

Kim Lomax is a freelance television producer and director.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.