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.

Photo: Getty Images
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.