Ken vs Boris: my verdict

After interviewing both mayoral contenders in one day, I found Ken candid and Boris canny.

Boris Johnson, according to a poll, is the person with whom most Londoners would like to have breakfast. Last Friday, I had mine with Ken at a café in Hampstead, after which I had lunch at City Hall with the popular mayor himself.

The Ken-Boris contest used to boil down to policy v personality. It was Ken, though, who turned out to be an interviewer's dream -- indiscreet, careless, outspoken and funny. Box Office Boris has been banished for the duration of the electoral campaign, replaced by an on-message Conservative politician and media-savvy former journalist, painfully conscious of how he will appear in print and of how his comments will be reported.

For such a notorious maverick, I found Boris maddeningly cautious and unforthcoming and it made him less fun to interview than I had anticipated.

The fact that he knows every journalistic trick, after a lifetime spent working as a hack, may well turn out to be one of Boris's greatest advantages over Ken. He is constantly vigilant, on the lookout for the tripwire that will land him in trouble. Once a quote-jukebox, he answered my questions with non-sequiturs, flattery, prevarication, diversion and digression. He even "pleaded the Fifth" to avoid answering in a way that would give the papers a headline. He stuck frustratingly to his mantra about his achievements and plans.

Boris's dilemma is that what makes him popular is also what stops him from being taken seriously as a politician. It's the likeability factor, though, that got him elected. Boris has always been bafflingly bullet proof. Every past gaffe and glitch has propelled Bounce-Back Boris on to greater glory. The public don't seem to care. In a superficial age, he has always seemed fun, telegenic, the anti-politician. He has by far the highest approval rating of any Tory.

Whereas once Ken was seen as competent and Boris charismatic, I found Ken candid and Boris canny. In the hour I spent with him, Ken told me the following: the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, is "a moral imbecile" for vetoing the word "Palestine" in a protest song; bankers' bonuses are "like penis extensions, among a smaller league of men - mine is bigger than yours"; Margaret Thatcher was "clinically insane" when in power; the Daily Mail "has done an awful lot for making us a more embittered people". Henry Kissinger "wasn't going to get laid until he was powerful, you know".

Spoiling for a fight, he was irrepressibly controversial, despite his press officer's best efforts. It's no surprise that he called his memoir You Can't Say That. After all this is the man who called an Evening Standard journalist, who was Jewish, a "German war criminal", for which he refused to apologise and was given a one-month suspension for bringing the office of mayor into disrepute.

Ken talked more about Boris than Boris talked about Boris -- and even though he usually doesn't talk about his children, he couldn't resist a dig: "We both have five, I can admit to all mine." He was referring to his rival's rumoured illegitimate two-year-old.

What did surprise me about Ken was that for someone so politically intransigent, he was open about regrets and failings in his personal life. I got a glimpse of what this self-confessed "workaholic", currently without a job, who still wants to change the world but who admits that "politics takes over your life", is missing. "No one would ever want to marry a politician," he tells me. I know I say. And I do.

It's hard to imagine Ken ever switching off from politics. He is most alive when he's talking figures, policies, plans. And despite once saying that a mayor should serve only two terms, his plans seem to extend well beyond the next four years. Even while gardening, he told me, he talks through issues to himself out loud.

I have heard people say often that they like Boris but they worry about his ability to run London. I worry about Ken's ability to work with a Tory government in a time of economic crisis. For him, the office of mayor is not just about London: it's about changing the system.

Ken is a revolutionary, by nature. That worries me. It's also why I like him.

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide