Boris Johnson tests out a bed on his visit to the Olympic Park and Olympic Village on July 12, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Boris admits working from home after denouncing it as a "skivers' paradise"

Mayor concedes "sometimes I don't go in" after being challenged by Ken Livingstone on his LBC phone-in show. 

In my interview with him in the current NS, Ken Livingstone reveals that disgruntled Tories on the London Assembly have told him that Boris has decided to start working from home on Fridays. 

What I find interesting is that almost all the dirt I get on Boris comes from the Tory members on the [London] Assembly. They’re really angry because he’s decided he’s going to start working from home on Fridays.

For the mayor, it was an embarrassing claim. Back in the summer of 2012, as ministers advised people to work from home during the Olympics to reduce congestion, he denounced the practice as a "skiver’s paradise", declaring: "Some people will see the Games as an opportunity to work from home, in inverted commas. We all know that is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again. I don’t want to see too many of us doing that."

Nor was this mere flippancy from Boris. He added that working from home was "greatly overrated" and that "In my opinion people need to get in. They need to meet each other and they need to exchange ideas in an office environment."

When I reported the story last Wednesday, the claim was denied by the mayor's spokesman ("no plans to work from home on Fridays"), but Livingstone seized an opportunity to question Boris himself today. In a message left on his LBC show Ask Boris, he said: 

Hi Boris, it's Ken here. I was really interested to see that you're now working from home on Friday, I used to do that occasionally when we couldn't do a babysitter, but I managed to take a big wad of stuff home and brought it in on Monday morning. All your staff tell me they don't see you come in with a big load of work on Monday morning. Tell me, all the problems that we've got in London, the housing crisis, the air quality, do you really think it's justified taking all that time off?

I was just surprised when we had that picture of you in the Telegraph standing in front of the desk after you'd been mayor for five years, you hadn't even moved a little pot of pens and pencils that I used to keep there. Do you do the day job?

The mayor gave a typically evasive response, declaring: "Well, I'm delighted to say that since I managed to evict the idle, useless reprobate Ken Livingstone from his position in London, where he was doing not very much, we have greatly improved the supply of housing, which he mentioned..."

But pressed by presenter Nick Ferrari ("Do you work from home on a Friday?"), he replied: "I work all the hours God gives, I can tell you, I have absolutely no plans to work on Friday." The exchange continued: 

Nick Ferrari: That wasn't quite the question. Do you work from home on a Friday? It's not against the law, by the way, should you so desire. Do you work from home on a Friday?

Boris Johnson: I do not, I do not. I come in, I work unbelievably hard and look at all the things that we've done...air quality...

NF: Where's Ken Livingstone got this idea from?

BJ: Because I'm sometimes out of the office on a Friday, which is perfectly legitimate

NF: Ah! So you sometimes don't go in on a Friday?

BJ: Yeh, I sometimes don't go in. 

Whether working from home involves completing his biography of Churchill, plotting to stop George Osborne getting his hands on the Conservative leadership, or just gorging on cheese from the fridge, the revelation will only enhance the impression that he is a part-time mayor. As I reported last week, one source close to City Hall said that he had "never known the place to be so quiet".

Update: Tom Watson makes a sharp point on Twitter.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.