Boris shifts his message and admits "there is too much inequality"

After previously denouncing efforts to reduce inequality as "futile", the mayor concedes that the gap between the rich and the poor is too large.

As well as failing an IQ test and revealing that he doesn't know the price of a tube ticket, Boris Johnson's appearance on LBC this morning also saw him subtly shift his message on inequality. In his Margaret Thatcher lecture last week, the mayor presented inequality as both inevitable and desirable, denouncing efforts to reduce it as "futile". But today he qualified this message by conceding that at the moment "there is too much inequality".

He said: "[I]f you look at what’s happened in the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a widening in income between rich and poor – there’s no question about that, and what hacks me off is that people with ability have been finding it very difficult to progress in the last 20 years and we’ve got to do something about that." 

Boris's declaration that the gap between the rich and the poor is too large sets him apart from Tony Blair and other New Labour figures, who tended to respond to questions on the subject by quipping that they didn't go into politics to make David Beckham earn less money. He is also entirely right to recognise the link between social mobility and inequality. As I noted last week in response to his Thatcher lecture, it is the most unequal countries, such as the UK and the US, that have the lowest levels of social mobility, while the most equal, such as Sweden, Canada and Japan, that have the highest.

But Boris's belated acknowledgment that inequality is too high only intensifies the question of why he is in favour of policies, such as a reduction in the top rate of tax (he has called for the government to consider a 30p top rate) and the return of grammar-style schools, that would make the gap even wider. 

Boris Johnson presents The Editor's Award at the 59th London Evening Standard Theatre Awards at The Savoy Hotel on November 17, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.