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.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.