Boris Johnson delivers his speech on Europe at Bloomberg's London HQ this morning. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Boris's frivolity has left London craving serious leadership

When it comes to tackling the real issues facing the city, Boris has failed spectacularly. 

Who would have thought it? The famous blonde mop will soon be seen frantically pedalling its way past City Hall on the way to Westminster. As predictable as it was, Boris’s announcement today breaks a long-standing promise to Londoners that he would not become an MP while he was Mayor. The news clarifies where Boris’s priorities really lie and confirms what many of us have been saying for some time: the story of Boris’s London has been far more about Boris than about London.

To give the man his due, it hasn’t all been bad. For all the bombast and bravado, Boris has represented London well on the global stage. He is a jovial and likeable figurehead for the capital, fronting the 2012 Olympics and promoting the city well. I worked with him closely in the aftermath of the 2011 riots and always found him to be warm and amiable. I wish him well in whatever he does next.

But what has become increasingly clear is that while his own ambition knows no limit, Boris is seriously lacking in real ideas or ambition for London. The headline-grabbing gimmicks such as "Boris Island" disguise the fact that this emperor does not have any clothes. It took five years as Mayor for Boris to finally publish his vision for the city, and subsequent steps towards implementing that vision have been minimal and half-hearted.

Boris sets his targets low, but still fails to meet them. At a time when London needs 100,000 new homes a year, he gave himself a hopelessly inadequate annual target of 15,000 affordable homes and still spectacularly fell short. He talks up Silicon Roundabout yet fails to recognise that a 21st century world city needs technological innovation and investment that extends far beyond a few streets in Farringdon. He lets unemployment soar and then says it’s not his job to create jobs.

When it comes to tackling the real issues facing London, Boris has failed spectacularly. From infrastructure to transport to policing, his legacy is one of delays, disinterest and distraction. Those who have to work with him talk of a man biding his time, doing the minimum he can get away with and pushing the big issues into the long grass to avoid having to make tough decisions.

As a result, the next mayor will inherit a city in which problems that were mounting in 2008 are now spiralling out of control. On housing Boris’s record is particularly poor. His pledges and targets on house-building lie in tatters, constantly rewritten and redefined to cover up his failures. He has passively allowed London rents to hit an all-time high. And his decision to allow affordable housing rents to be significantly increased has hit low-income Londoners hard. Eighty two per cent of Londoners now believe the capital is in the grip of a full-scale housing crisis – and they are right.

Going forward, big problems will require big solutions. Tackling London’s housing crisis will mean making brownfield land available for housing, introducing a sensible system of rent controls and lifting the borrowing cap on local councils so they can build new council homes. Six wasted years mean London’s housing problem has reached crisis point – it needs committed leadership to solve it.

Boris doesn’t score highly on transport either. On his watch, bus fares have soared by 61% while the cost of a Tube travelcard is up by nearly a half. Meanwhile, Boris proudly poses for photos in front of his pointless £60m cable car and his defective £11.4m Routemaster buses. Instead of spending taxpayers money on vanity projects and a few accompanying headlines, he could have committed to keeping fares down. The Mayor of London should be overseeing and implementing a reliable, affordable and integrated transport system, not chasing photo ops and dangling on zip wires.

After promising to make London’s streets safer, meanwhile, Boris cut the number police officers by over 2,600 and forced through the closure of 12 fire stations.

The result of all this is that London is decreasingly affordable and increasingly divided. From his luxury office at the top of City Hall, Boris looks out over a city in which one in four people now live in poverty while the gap between rich and poor has turned into a chasm under the leadership of a Mayor who claims inequality is "essential". 

Whoever takes over in City Hall will have to make up for eight years of lost time. They will need to act boldly and decisively to ensure that London maintains its global edge. London therefore needs a mayor whose sole focus is working for Londoners, not one who is doing the job as a fall-back option or a stepping stone to Downing Street. With steely focus and real commitment, none of the issues the capital faces are insurmountable. It remains a vibrant, diverse and successful world city that 8.6 million people are proud to call home. But we need the mayor to prepare the city for the challenges of tomorrow. Behind the frivolity and the frollicks of Boris’s mayoralty lies the reality of a city craving serious leadership.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder