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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.

Boris on a wire
Boris stuck on the zip wire.

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.