What needs to be in Boris's London 2020 "vision"

The mayor finally needs to offer a compelling account of the city he wants London to be.

Tomorrow, Boris Johnson, publishes his long-awaited "vision", setting out what he wants to achieve for London by 2020. (That 2020 would be the year a third Johnson term would end is no doubt a complete coincidence.) 

This is an important moment in Boris’s mayoralty. He came to the job having run nothing larger than a small weekly magazine – the Spectator – and with a good Tory wariness of anything that smelled of bureaucracy, including the long tiresome strategic documents which bureaucracies are wont to produce.

As a result, Boris left the GLA’s strategic framework more or less as he found it. He revised those strategies he had to revise and overhauled London government architecture by, for instance, abolishing the London Development Agency. But his first term was unmarked by any fundamental recasting of the GLA’s aims and objectives or a sharpening of its strategic capability.

What Boris brings to the mayoralty is personal charm bordering on charisma - no small quality in a political leader, especially one in a position where most of the power is of the 'soft' kind.  Boris is good at persuading government leaders and businesses of the merits of investing in the London, and tells the city’s story well to the rest of the world. Clement Attlee is meant to have said that Churchill won the Second World War "by talking about it". Boris has led London in much the same way - lots of talking but not much strategising.

After his second election, however, Boris made an apparently off-the-cuff commitment to his GLA staff to produce a vision for London - something that would provide a point of unity around which everyone working for him could unite. Six months after it was due to be published, the big day is fast approaching. Rumour has it that it’s a 'personal document', written in Boris’s voice. 

We can predict with confidence some of the things that will be in it. Almost certainly, it will call for devolution of finances to London, as set out in the final report of the London Finance Commission. It will reiterate Boris’s opposition to any expansion of Heathrow and call for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. It will argue for more funding for homes and transport, in light of London’s higher than predicted population growth – it’s no chance that it is being published in the run-up to the announcement of George Osborne’s Spending Review on 26 June.

But what about the things that it should include but might not? I set out three below.

First, we at Centre for London will be looking for a stronger narrative than Boris has yet produced about London. For all of his eloquence, the Mayor has oddly failed to offer a compelling account about the city he wants to London to be. For a while he talked about "creating a village in the city". He talks about maintaining London’s competitiveness and its position as a leading world city and, more wittily, of London as the centre of a new "BRIC-ish Empire." But he has never come up with a story that has really stuck.

Boris has to develop that story for himself – it needs to be personal. But its starting point has got to be that London’s future lies in it retaining and building on its status as a global city.  London is never going to compete on being cheapest city in the world but it can compete, and win, as the most innovative and creative one, a competitive place for high value businesses, and a city that offers offers a great quality of life and opportunity for all its inhabitants.  Charlie Leadbeater put this well at last year’s London Conference when he developed the argument that London’s future lay in it being at one and the same time a "high-system" city, with an efficient transport system, decent homes, safe streets and highly professional public services, and a "high-empathy" city – one where people from different backgrounds connect, where friends are easily found and kept and with a rich and engaging public realm.

Second, the 2020 vision has to mount a convincing argument in favour of London winning more power to govern itself. The coalition government sees itself as a decentralising one and has gone some way to devolving control to London (notably over housing and, to a lesser degree, policing) and other cities. But as the London Finance Commission noted, England remains an extraordinarily centralised country by international standards and while decentralising control over taxation from central government to the capital, as the Finance Commission recommended, would be a huge step forward, there is further to go. London government is better positioned than central government to tailor policies to local circumstances and join up services. There is a good argument for devolving housing benefit budgets to the GLA, and devolving spending on skills and training from Whitehall to London boroughs,who understand local economic needs and opportunities and are well positioned to connect employers and businesses. Ideally, Boris’s document should include a commitment to work with England’s other cities to help win the argument for devolution and make a success of it.

Finally, the 2020 vision should include prominent affirmation that London is not just a world city but a capital city too. London is already viewed as greedy and arrogant by much of the country and its continued economic growth, relative to the rest of the UK, is bound to put a further strain on relations. It’s not enough to argue, as London’s leaders tend to do, that the capital’s prosperity trickles down to the rest country, or that 'what’s good for London is good for the UK'. Of course the Mayor needs to continue to make the case for London but he also needs to acknowledge national reservations about London’s dominance, and the widely-held view that it is favoured by Whitehall and Westminster. The 2020 vision should launch a conversation about how London can do more to help the rest of the UK. For a politician of national ambition, Boris shows surprisingly little interest in building relations with the other regions and cities of the UK.

We shall discover on Tuesday whether the nine months' work that Boris has put into his 'vision' marks a big step forward in his thinking or whether it will be business as usual at the GLA. 

Ben Rogers is the director of Centre for London

@Ben_Rog

Boris Johnson speaks to Crossrail construction workers in London's docklands area on 31 May, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London think tank, and the author of 10 Ideas for the New Mayor.

Photo: Getty
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From hard to soft to the “people’s Brexit”: Theresa May’s Britain is in one hell of a frightful mess

Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Theresa May became Prime Minister only because of Brexit. Her insouciant predecessor, whose most substantial contribution to this year’s general election campaign was to tweet a photograph of his and his wife’s feet as they lay side by side in bed, resigned because of Brexit. May’s successor will become prime minister because of Brexit. The defining question of British politics is Brexit and its effects and consequences.

So much time, energy and anxiety are being wasted on Brexit, and for what? For Britain to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union that will be, in every way, inferior – socially, economically, culturally – to what we have already, and at a time of dangerous instability in the world, when a clown and braggart occupies the White House. Nobody told me there’d be days like these, as John Lennon once put it in a song popularised by his son Julian. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

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David Cameron’s decision to hold the 2016 referendum at the height of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War was an act of spectacular folly by a politician who believed too much in the myth of his own good fortune (“Lucky Dave”, they called him). Michael Portillo has described it as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. After Cameron’s resignation last summer, Theresa May seemed like the only grown-up in a cabal of entitled and squabbling leadership contenders and Conservative MPs duly organised her coronation.

When she became Prime Minister, May delivered a fine speech in Downing Street: she would create a different, more communitarian, even post-liberal conservatism, and she would fight against “burning injustice”. She understood that the vote for Brexit was also a vote of protest against a failed economic model; against austerity, against stagnant wages and in-work poverty, and against ultra-globalisation. People were weary. “I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle,” May said. “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

***

Opinion polls seemed to suggest that May was admired and trusted. She was cold and austere but she also seemed serious, and these were serious times. Yet May’s actions were never equal to her early rhetorical positioning and she never reached out to the many millions who had voted Remain and felt excluded.

By the time of the general election campaign, she was reduced to repeating soundbites and clichés. She had become the Maybot. The promising “Red Tory” language of the early months of her premiership – when she spoke about the common good and the need for greater social responsibility – had gone altogether. This is a source of much regret to her maligned former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy.

“My biggest regret,” he has said, “is that we did not campaign in accordance with the insight that took Theresa to Downing Street in the first place.” With her authority and confidence shattered, May will be gone soon: in seeking to deliver the hard Brexit her Eurosceptic supporters in the party and press demanded, she has succeeded only in creating more confusion and tumult.

***

May used to tell us with supreme wisdom that “Brexit means Brexit”. In her Lancaster House speech in January, she explained her preference for a “clean” Brexit (ie, Britain should leave the single market and customs union and be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice). Her use of the word “clean” was philosophically very interesting, especially when you consider its opposite: dirty, as in a dirty or unclean Brexit.

One of the many satisfying outcomes of the general election was that it has reopened the possibility of an alternative to hard (or clean) Brexit, for which there is no mandate in the House of Commons. I have been keeping a note of the different kinds of Brexit that are being touted.

What is clear is that the adjectives “hard” and “soft”, when prefixed to Brexit, are now quite passé. Emboldened by the improbable revival of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson favours what she calls an “open” Brexit, and so now does the preposterous Boris Johnson, too, who waits like a big, overheated, hungry dog for the door of 10 Downing Street to open for him, the saliva of ambition dribbling from his mouth.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s serious-minded barrister supreme, is against what he calls an “extreme Brexit”, even if we are not sure what he is actually for, and the Guardian opposes what it calls a “chaotic Brexit”. Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and educationalist, supports a “sane Brexit”. The Labour activist Sam Tarry wants a “people’s Brexit”. The commentator Philip Stephens has called for an “intelligent Brexit”, as one would expect of an FT panjandrum; and ­Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing Eurosceptic who leads a party of parliamentary Remainers, wants a Brexit that protects jobs and workers’ rights. Perhaps we should call this a “Bennite Brexit”. Do please let me know if you spot any other variations.

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My own preference – and I write having been no great enthusiast for the EU before the referendum – is for “no Brexit”, such is the mess into which this country has been dragged by a former Conservative prime minister who believed the simple mechanism of a binary plebiscite could settle an internal party dispute; one that had festered since Ted Heath took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. This as well as his desire to assuage the populism of Nigel Farage and appease his tormentors in the press: and all at the time of his own choosing. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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