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.
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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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