Boris Johnson boxing during a visit to the Fight for Peace Academy in Woolwich, London, in October 2014. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty
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The trouble with Boris Johnson: how bad would it really be if this man became prime minister?

Don’t be blinded by the relentless showmanship and the buffoonish charms of “Boris” the brand. As he heads for parliament once more, it’s vital we pay attention to his failure to initiate very much of lasting worth during his tenure as Mayor of London.

By the end of this year the Conservative Party could have a new leader and it might not be George Osborne or Theresa May. It might instead be a chap who won’t have been back in the Commons for long after seven years away, a fellow famed for his gaffes and game-show jollity, a man once described as the only British politician instantly recognisable from behind. You will certainly be aware that he is one of the very few routinely referred to by his first name. In 2015, he could move to within one general election of becoming prime minister. How much trouble might the nation be in?   

Boris Johnson is, of course, often the centre of attention. In November 2013 it was thanks to his enlightening views on intelligence. “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests,” he said, “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85 while about two per cent have an IQ above 130.”

It was a 20-second sentence from a 45-minute speech, but it inflated a media balloon. Other politicians helped it fly. Labour’s shadow education secretary, the historian Tristram Hunt, said Johnson’s words carried an “unpleasant whiff of eugenics”. Nick Clegg claimed they betrayed a “careless elitism”.

Fellow Conservatives were emollient, yet looked askance: “I wouldn’t have put it like that, and I don’t agree with everything he said,” George Osborne replied, when, inevitably, he was asked to comment. David Cameron too was pressed for a response, never mind that he was on a trade mission to Beijing. “Everyone has their own way of putting these things,” he said, “and I will leave Boris to talk for Boris”.

The kerfuffle was instructive. It underlined that the media’s enduring adoration of Johnson isn’t inspired only by the comedic flair with which he blends contrived haplessness and gargantuan ambition into a seductive public persona, but also by his capacity for generating conflicts that can embroil the prime minister himself. The “Boris” brand is supremely saleable as Cameron himself has recognised by placing his “star player” at the heart of his general election campaign. This incident also demonstrated that the heat of such uproars often sheds too little light.

The IQ sentence appeared in the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture, delivered by Johnson to the Centre for Policy Studies think tank Thatcher co-founded in 1974. Though qualified and touched with a realist’s regret, it was a defiant torching of a straw man – Tory “common sense” presented as fearlessly confronting stifling, lefty, relativist self-delusion. More importantly, it formed part of an argument about not only equality but also duty and opportunity.

Johnson’s case was that the massively enlarged gap between the richest and the rest is an inevitable and acceptable outcome of the free market economy becoming, as he put it, “the only show in town”. He said: “Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy in which the competition is getting ever stiffer.” This intensifying force, he maintained, “is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability”. He summarised with a trademark comic metaphor: “The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.”

The big word here is “easier”. In Johnson’s view, it seems, that symbolic box of breakfast cereal in its unshaken state is analogous to a stagnant 1970s Britain in which the larger flakes were punished by being trapped among the crumbs. Certainly, he thought Thatcher’s laissez faire disturbing of this stale state of affairs had liberated Mr Kellogg’s alpha specimens and that the nation is better nourished as a result.

Where does this leave the packet’s beta classes, its detritus and its dust? Here we see where Johnson’s IQ point was aimed. He was not only arguing that wealth discrepancies reflect an unequal distribution of “raw ability” and that the keener a competitive environment the more this is so. He was also expressing concern that the reflection is incomplete. Britain’s mission, he believes, should be to put that right.

Addressing the task was one of two conditions he placed on tolerating the widening wealth gap: “One, that we help those who genuinely cannot compete; and, two, that we provide opportunity for those who can.” Condition one would be fulfilled by “acts of prodigious philanthropy”. Condition two was presented as the sane alternative to the lunatic idea that the very rich should cough up more in tax – fuller and freer competition.

“There are too many cornflakes who aren’t being given a good enough chance to rustle and hustle their way to the top,” Johnson said. Correcting this deficit would mean instilling the competitive ethos more fervently in schools. This, he reckoned, is what Thatcher would be doing were she in power today. Her mass axing of grammar schools had, Johnson conceded, been regrettable. Yet he was convinced that a returning Mrs T would do all she could “to help bright children everywhere to overcome their background”.

Norman Tebbit, perhaps the most lethal communicator of the Thatcher doctrine at the time after “the lady” herself, has worried publicly that Johnson might not have “an agenda for what he wants to do for this country should he become prime minister”. The lecture offered clues. Following Milton Friedman, the doyen of the “Chicago school” economics so revered by Thatcher, the London mayor embraced greed as his creed, with only the tip of his tongue tucked in his cheek. He envisaged Britain as the most restless, rivalrous, envious, and, yes, greediest meritocracy on Earth. He wanted this to be celebrated as the most natural and therefore the best way of delivering the greater good, increased inequality and all. The best and only way.

 

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No Conservative with national leadership ambitions has set out such ideals with so much crowd-pleasing conviction since the woman Johnson’s lecture honoured. That is a big part of the trouble with Johnson in the eyes of his foes. More precisely, it is the trouble those foes have with “Boris”, the public enactment of Johnson that makes him, in poll after poll, the most popular politician in the land. This includes fellow Conservatives. David Cameron had to neutralise the Tories’ “nasty party” problem with huskies, hoodie-hugging and a wind turbine on his roof. George Osborne finesses nastiness as “fairness”. But “Boris” doesn’t have to bother with disguise. His makes hardcore Conservatism feel like marvelous mischief and endless fun.

This “Boris” is a hard target to hurt. Hitting him is not so difficult. Doing him damage is a much tougher task. Even when he seems to have done harm to himself, he sustains no obvious wounds. If anything, he grows stronger. After Johnson got stuck on a zip wire in east London’s Victoria Park during the 2012 Olympic Games and the images of the host capital’s mayor, dangling absurdly 20 feet in the air, were shared to guffaws around the world, Cameron remarked that a mishap which would have spelled disaster for any other politician was, for “Boris”, an “absolute triumph”.

The prime minister was right. Indeed, that image of a stranded Johnson – portly, be-suited, hilariously helpless, a union flag clutched in each hand – captures not only his matchless capacity for thriving in the face of embarrassment but also how it forms part of a larger appeal to millions of Britons, perhaps enough of them to convey him to Downing Street one day.

Plenty of Tories in the Commons wouldn’t want him as their leader, whether out of jealously, disdain or loyalty to someone else. That is a problem for Johnson as he prepares to return to the Commons via Uxbridge next year, perhaps to seek the leadership of his party if a defeated Cameron steps down – unless the leadership election process is changed his MP peers will have to vote him one of their top two before the final verdict is decided by party members. But maybe it will happen anyway. Asked if Johnson could end up leading his party, one prominent Conservative replied: “It all depends how desperate we are.” Maybe one day they will be desperate enough.

It’s often argued that Johnson’s political successes are due solely to his novelty appeal, that combination of comedic flair and unorthodox style – a vivid “character” enlivening the otherwise dull stage of current affairs. David Runciman, drawing a comparison with the coalitions and austerity of the 1930s, points out that such times create spaces in which maverick outsiders can shine. “Doubtless Johnson would like to envisage himself as Churchill,” he wrote, anticipating the “wishful self-portrait of the author” detected by the Spectator’s reviewer of the biography of the bulldog wartime leader Johnson – or, rather, ‘Boris” – has just produced. Runciman thinks this very wishful indeed, dismissing Johnson as “noise over substance” and a “flash-in-the-pan”.

Even so, there is a kind of depth to the “Boris” performance. In his critique of Thatcher’s famous speech to the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988, Jonathan Raban argued that “the most strikingly original quality possessed by Mrs Thatcher is her integrity”. Raban was using the word “integrity” in its neglected, primary sense, meaning completeness or entirety. He wrote: “Her physical bearing and appearance, her dress, her hair, voice, style of thought and turns of phrase are more impressively all-of-a-piece than those of any British politician in recent history, Churchill not excepted. ‘Thatcherism’ is vested squarely in the person of Margaret Thatcher.”

The same definition of integrity can be applied to the very different person of Johnson. His frivolity, flamboyance and fruitiness, the impression he gives – not exactly false – of flying, dazzling and spontaneous, by the seat of his pants, could hardly make a sharper contrast with the steely, small town certainties and colossal moral snobbery of the late Iron Lady. Yet Johnson, like her, is a vivid and consummate personification of attitudes and ideas that many find compelling. The “Boris” brand has the same priceless ability to soar beyond the reach of its own contradictions by addressing the heart more than the head. And also just like Thatcher’s the “Boris” phenomenon is a beguiling bricolage of Great British seductions.

The laughter, of course, is key. Only the more jaded Johnson observers – non-Tory members of the London Assembly, the bare handful of journalists who’ve covered the nuts and bolts of his mayoralty since it began in 2008 – have gone past getting the giggles when he evades the probes of earnest interrogators or makes some absurdist allusion in a speech. But it isn’t just the humour. It’s how it resonates. It’s what it hurts.

Sometimes it’s just silly: quips about being reincarnated as an olive or double entendres about crown jewels. Other times it’s cutting, and the more wounding for pretending not to be. He has stopped patronising female members of the London Assembly by addressing them as “dear”, but not before scoring a point when challenged over it one day at City Hall. “If I write you a letter...” he began in arch reply, breaking off to bask in guffaws from the public gallery. Mr Cocky got a laugh. The assembly member was belittled as Miss Prim.

The Johnson’s comedy seeks to provoke particular kinds of indignation. Tellings-off for stereotyping Scandinavians on the basis of crime fiction or remarking that Muslim women go to college to seek mates are combatted, should this need doing, with displays of faux-wounded innocence, the more winning for subtly yet unmistakably mocking his accusers’ piety. Like his kindred spirit Jeremy Clarkson, “Boris” likes to engage in provocative manuoevres at the boundaries of what outrages “the politically correct”, invoking rivalries with “the French” or, as in his Hyde Park speech just before the Olympics, pumping up a patriotism that keeps its distance from jingoism, yet nods to it unmistakably. What a scamp.

In these ways Johnson nourishes his image as a teasing antidote to stiff conformity, an iconoclast, an “anti-politician”. He adds a layer of endearment by sending himself up, never committing the modern populists’ sin of seeming to take “Boris” too seriously. He sees advantage in referring to his back catalogue of disgraces, the offence he’s given to Liverpool and Portsmouth, even to his marital infidelities. Linking the recent boom in London’s population to his time at City Hall was for a while one of his stock nudge-wink asides.

He’s been selective with it, though. A misjudged wisecrack dismissing as “chicken feed” the £250,000 a year he receives for his weekly Telegraph column has not been milked. Like every successful entertainer, “Boris” knows his audience. Like Lynton Crosby, the “Wizard of Oz” strategist he’s retained for his two mayoral election campaigns, and who is now running the Tories’ national campaign, he sends signals that turn target antennae on.

His euroscepticism is a part of that, finely calibrated to place him on the mainstream side of Nigel Farage – the only serious rival to “Boris” in “anti-politician” terms – while making Cameron look timid. It’s all of a piece with a broader claim on patriotism, which, as Thatcher famously did in 1983, harks back to a Victorian age of unbridled private enterprise and grand benefaction; of values that defined a time when, in Thatcher’s words, “our country became great”.

His so-called new Routemaster bus – alliteratively appropriated as the “Boris bus”, of course – fits the Rule Britannia revivalist narrative too. Johnson has called attention to its being manufactured by a UK firm, Wrightbus of Ballymena. Its distinctive feature is a passenger platform at its rear emulating that of the original Routemaster, the ageing London classic his predecessor as mayor, Ken Livingstone, retired. Johnson has sold the project as a reassertion of tradition and the return of the “hop on, hop-off” facility as a rebuke to health-and-safety nannyism.

Yet simultaneously he’s reached an accommodation with the cultural gains made by the left during and since the Thatcher years, re-framing some of Ken’s “trendy” metropolitan values in ways that are compatible with his own. By embracing ethnic diversity as a business asset, speaking up for the value of immigration in a city where more than a third of residents are foreign-born, and expressing a social liberalism to match his zeal for the economic kind he has achieved a consistency many Tories still find difficult.

The Britishness of “Boris” picks up where Thatcherism left off while remediating its toxicity. This evangelist for tooth-and-claw, meritocratic free markets woos the electorate with self-parodic poshness, a throwback impression of Dunkirk-esque “muddling through” and an implied invitation to join him on a subversive quest to put a prankster into power. He’s Eton’s answer to the Cockney crooks in the Ealing comedies of the Forties and Fifties.

“Boris” has tapped into that long-standing national appetite for tweaking the establishment’s nose and appropriated it for the right. He speaks to the bleating, Littlejohnning resentments of Little Britain, but rarely uses that jeering, angry voice. And at the same time, he knows how to defer – soon after he moved into City Hall, the wall by the lift shafts was graced with a portrait of the Queen.

The gift of “Boris” is to airbrush history’s misgivings and make the Tory cry for freedom look like a great national adventure into a glorious shedding of inhibition. All who resist are rendered bores and killjoys, almost by definition. He’s not just “Boris”, he’s “good old Boris”, as a BBC reporter once called him. Thatcherism evolved over time. “Boris” arrives fully formed. Insofar as it’s an act, it’s effortless. It’s authentic. It has integrity.

 

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Journalists are part of the trouble too. We never tire of puffing up the “Boris” balloon. Endless attention has been lavished on little fights he’s picked with Cameron from the platform the mayoralty provides. Johnson’s differences with the coalition have, in fact, been vanishingly small – the time taken before the top rate of tax was cut, the precise position to adopt on a European referendum, the speed at which housing benefit caps should take effect. But they titillate Westminster village reporters intoxicated by Johnson’s power games, imagined or real.

The mutual self-interest served by this relationship would make a good media studies course. But the substance of the Tory mayor’s six and a half years at City Hall is more significant – it is both a guide to how he would run the country and a study in how he has adapted those hardcore, economic convictions to make them fit with leading a city like London, with “caring Conservatism” and with modern times.

Johnson might be a joker but his is far from a joke job. Compared with those of mayoral counterparts abroad his powers are small, yet they are bigger than a lot of people think. Johnson presides over an annual budget of £17bn, compared with the £10bn the Home Office receives and slightly more than is provided to the government of Wales. He has direct command, through Transport for London (TfL), of most public transport in the capital and its major roads. He has strategic controls over large redevelopment and house-building decisions, setting the planning framework within which they are made and possessing the legal right to take them into his own hands.

All this gives Johnson a major influence over the social and economic evolution of a metropolis whose economy is valued at around £350bn a year, 22.5 per cent of the entire UK. His bedrock mission can be gleaned from the imagery he uses. For “Boris”, London is “the throbbing engine that powers the UK”, an “intricate machine” that is now “starting to throb on the launching pad like a Saturn V”, primed to jet the nation into a new boom. Most of what he’s done as mayor has aimed to fuel that rocket, that engine, that machine in ways preferred by the private business interest who own the biggest part of it. At the same time, he’s designed a social liberalism to complement his zeal for the economic kind. “Boris”, though, makes the blend feel plausible.

In transport, the policy area London mayors are most directly in charge of, Johnson’s strategy has been largely a dog’s dinner of gut ideology, vote-chasing and uneven delivery. Johnson is considered to have secured decent funding from Osborne despite the strictures of austerity. Hectoring like a bank bencher and lobbying like a spending minister, he has ensured the full completion, from 2018, of the massive Crossrail scheme and the huge, overdue Underground upgrade programme, albeit on lengthened timescales. His commitment to these projects during his first term prompted some to ascribe a “Ken Lite” quality to his administration, a reference to these thick threads of continuity from his predecessor Ken Livingstone. Banter about “Red Boris” did the rounds.

In some ways, this line holds. Yet Johnson’s priorities have varied from Livingstone’s in telling ways. His eagerness to keep big rail investments rolling indicates a belief that public transport paid for by the public purse is most fully justified if it primes the profit motive. Where new rail capacity goes, house building and property values increase, as do businesses and employment. By comparison, the bus service, which carries far more passengers, has been neglected. New or improved bus routes help Londoners take advantage of job opportunities but do not “drive regeneration” in the same way. Livingstone fought for those rail projects too, but for him the bus network, used more by poorer people, was just as important. Only in the past month has TfL produced plans to expand it. Johnson’s worry has been that it’s been over-subsidised.  

That said, the impetus for Johnson’s successive hikes in public transport fares has come in part from TfL. Though these have eased in the past two years, a single bus journey now costs £1.50, compared with 90p when Johnson moved in to City Hall in May 2008. But any mayor would have struggled to avoid increases completely. Meanwhile, a range of concessionary fares, including for children, has been maintained. “Boris” cannot be a blue meanie.

On roads, there’s been a default deference to private motorists, even though their numbers have been shrinking. Though Johnson has resisted unending pressure from Conservative London Assembly members – his equivalent of Commons backbenchers – to do away with congestion charging altogether, he halved the size of charging zone in 2009 while requiring TfL to invest resources depleted by that decision in “smoothing traffic flow” – code for helping motor vehicles get around the place more quickly. (Or trying to: Johnson has deprecated himself in speeches by mocking the minute increase in London’s average traffic speeds achieved.) His own transport strategy acknowledges that snarl-ups cost London’s economy £2bn a year and that more congestion charging could reduce this. Yet despite Friedman himself advocating the measure – as Livingstone has relished pointing out – Johnson won’t countenance extending it.

A deregulatory instinct has informed his management of the London roads he controls. Livingstone’s “modal hierarchy”, whereby road space was managed in favour of buses, bicycles and pedestrians has been slowed or eroded. A keen and highly visible cyclist, Johnson’s swashbuckling default outlook on two-wheel travel is that its chanciness is a challenge to be relished – the notoriously daunting roundabout at Elephant and Castle was, in his view, perfectly safe if you kept your wits about you. Yet the re-launched cycle superhighway program of his second term proclaims segregated lanes as a virtue, with road space being taken from motor vehicles of all kinds. Unlike the early routes this has secured cross-party backing, conspicuous support from the capital’s vociferous – not to mention the white, male-dominated and middle-class – cycling lobby. “Good old Boris” can be for turning if it gets him a round of applause.

Yet while his “cycling revolution” has taken an erratic course it is still in line with the values that drive him. His hire scheme was mostly used at first by out-of-town commuters who took advantage of the first 30 minutes being free to get between hub stations and their offices without facing the crush of bus or Tube. The clue is in the name of his cycle “superhighways” – fast track radial routes connecting the suburbs and the centre promoted as a means of oiling the wheels of the London economy as demand for transport capacity grows. Johnson once protested that championing cycling does him no electoral favours, but the evolution of the policy has mirrored a need to have a trophy achievement to parade by the end of his time at London’s helm. There’s plenty of spare space in the cabinet.

Transport policy is integral to Johnson’s approach to shaping London, which is enshrined in his spatial development master document, the London Plan. This sets priorities, designates “opportunity areas” and creates the controlling backdrop against which the capital’s local authorities take complex decisions about what types of homes, businesses and amenities should be constructed on London’s scarce and expensive land. Initially, Johnson used his planning muscle sparingly. But in his second term, as projections for Greater London’s population rise have become more spectacular – it could soar from 8.5 million to 10 million by 2031 – he’s been wielding his big stick.

Livingstone was criticised both from the left and by conservationists for being too close to developers, but he regarded them as a key source of financial investment, not least for affordable homes and other amenities through “planning gain’ deals. Johnson’s door is open to them, but with fewer conditions and a helping hand guaranteed. Adjoining Labour-run Islington and Camden have been enraged by his pre-empting their refusal of plans to turn a recently sold-off Royal Mail site into a new housing complex on the grounds that far too few of its homes would be within the price range of even middle-income locals. The Earls Court “regeneration” in one of the London Plan development “opportunity areas”, which envisages leveling the area’s world-famous exhibition centre and 760 good quality council estate homes to make way for a collection of high-rise, high-cost speculator “villages”, has been hailed by Johnson as a “landmark scheme”.

He would like to have founded a much bigger landmark – a brand new, four-runway international airport to the east of the city, out in the Thames estuary. His campaigning for a so-called “Boris Island”, now rejected by the government’s airports commission, is emblematic of his concept of human progress. “I’m a complete Whig,” he once told me on a building site in Merton, associating himself with a strand of Conservatism that prizes innovation and liberty. Aides say that to best capture his attention ideas should be presented to him in story form, painting a pleasing big picture rather than boring him with detail. His dauntless pursuit of his estuary airport dream smacks of Johnson scripting the biggest and best London story he can think of.

His case has had a simple and, to him, irresistible logic: London is expanding to the east, pushing outwards and onwards along the banks of the river, which was its original artery for international trade; an airport near that river’s mouth would be a glorious gateway for the global commerce of today and a proud new assertion of a buccaneering, risk-taking Britishness that isn’t scared to dream; a Britishness whose human form is “Boris”.

 

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It’s sometimes claimed that the true captain of the City Hall ship isn’t Johnson at all but Sir Edward Lister, his chief of staff and deputy for policy and planning. While “Boris” poses at the prow, “Steady Eddie” steers the course, or so the story goes. Others contest this. In their view the Tory mayoralty is definitely Johnson’s voyage, and the point about Lister is that he complements “Boris” perfectly. 

Before joining Johnson’s team in 2011 Sir Edward led Wandsworth council for 19 years, cementing its reputation, won back in Thatcher’s day, for outsourcing, council tax-cutting, nurturing home ownership, and selling council houses. It’s been remarked by cynics (including Livingstone) that Wandsworth achieved exactly what Dame Shirley Porter had in mind for Westminster in the Eighties – re-engineering the social make up of the borough – but had the sense to do it legally.

Sir Edward commands cross-party respect for his experience and grip. His predecessor, the late Sir Simon Milton, was held in comparable esteem. Milton was also credited with stabilising Johnson’s administration after a chaotic first year and a half during which five of his aides stepped down in unhappy circumstances, one of them over his misuse of a corporate credit card, which later led to a criminal conviction.

It would wrong to characterise the earliest Johnson teams, or the present one, as uniformly of his doctrinal type: Neale Coleman, a former Labour councillor who was Livingstone’s housing adviser, was retained to oversee the Olympics regeneration and is still in post; his transport deputy Isabel Dedring, a Harvard law graduate co-opted from TfL, was highly rated by Livingstone. But latterly there’s been a tendency to allocate new roles to members of a trusted coterie – dubbed “Boris’s Fat Boys” by dissenters – and pushy media allies. It might be countered that Livingstone’s City Hall too was quite a zoo. If so, the difference is that it contained fewer backbiters and skunks.

The mayor’s initial “first deputy” was Tim Parker, a big-time private equity player. His appointment demonstrated Johnson’s certainty that private sector rigour would fight public sector flab. In accepting an annual salary of just one pound, Parker also symbolised Johnson’s mission to cut costs. The experiment failed after three months, but Johnson has continued to decorate his mayoralty with business chiefs.

Barclays boss Bob Diamond was the original chair of his Mayor’s Fund for London, set up to stimulate a revival of Victorian-style philanthropy, which, as Johnson sometimes ruefully admits, has failed to materialise on any scale. He made Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross the first head of his Olympic legacy panel. Sainsbury’s boss Justin King was the second. Harvey McGrath, the former Prudential chief executive, was placed in command of the now-defunct London Development Agency and now plays important roles in Johnson’s economic and infrastructure planning for London.

As London’s mayor, Johnson is also its elected police and crime commissioner. Through the mayor’s office for policing and crime (MOPAC), he sets the priorities and budget of the Metropolitan Police Service and is required to hold its chief to account. MOPAC is run for him by the Tory former leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, Stephen Greenhalgh. While leading the west London borough, Greenhalgh was recruited by the then shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles to come up with a “bible” for Conservative council policy. He trailblazed policies that have strongly informed coalition initiatives on social housing and welfare. He also championed the Earls Court scheme, whose masterplanner Sir Terry Farrell and developer Capital and Counties were given places on Johnson’s design advisory panel. 

Described by another senior London Tory as “an impatient visionary”, Greenhalgh is a disciple of Lister. Able, energetic and at times oddly explosive, the former Proctor & Gamble brand manager has eagerly set about selling off chunks of the Metropolitan Police estate in an effort to cope with coalition spending cuts. But his first policing plan, packed with catchy performance targets and typically Tory hosannas for “bobbies on the beat”, was dismissed by a former Home Office criminologist as “designed to grab headlines”.

Johnson tirelessly cultivates friendly media coverage of “Boris”. His courtship of Rupert Murdoch, despite being a victim of phone hacking by the News of the World, extended to making him his very public guest at the Olympics – “Boris” likes to defy and annoy. The two communications chiefs who have served him joined from the BBC, which some at the Corporation believe has helped him have an easier ride than he deserves (the first, Guto Harri, left to do Murdoch’s post-hacking PR). The clubby character of the “Boris” interviews with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight might owe something to the now-departed presenter being a Johnson family friend.

Johnson’s media admirers include Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, who has described himself as proud to call Johnson “a friend”. He followed Johnson’s advice to appoint the paper’s current editor, Sarah Sands, just before the 2012 election. Sands used to look after Johnson’s Telegraph column when she worked on the paper and is another family friend. “Boris” enjoyed the paper’s warm support for re-election. According to the mayor’s gifts and hospitality register Lebedev has three times paid for Johnson to holiday with him in Italy. On the first occasion, Sands picked up the bill for his taxi home from the airport.

Journalist friends who have devoted themselves to helping Johnson win elections have been given prestigious and well-paid jobs, despite seeming somewhat under qualified. Veronica Wadley edited an Evening Standard of 2008 so viciously anti-Livingstone it made parody redundant. Johnson nominated her to head the Arts Council in London ahead of other candidates judged by most of those present at the interviews for the job – the exception being Johnson’s own culture advisor – to have given better interviews and who, unlike Wadley, had long experience running arts institutions.

Four years later, Johnson made Wadley his senior adviser for volunteering. She was unpaid for the first year, but is now on a salary of £76,760 for a four-day week. His fellow Telegraph writer, the former BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan (whose byline adorned a string of anti-Livingstone articles in Wadley’s Standard and a further glut at the Telegraph in 2012) has also been favoured by the mayor. A keen cyclist, Gilligan receives £57,570 for a three-day week as “cycling commissioner” despite having no previous experience in transport planning.

Johnson’s cultivation of media allies is, of course, helpful when dealing with enemies. He’s been the subject of two insightful biographies, one friendly, one critical. The latter, by his former journalist colleague Sonia Purnell, was reviewed by a number of Johnson admirers and protégés. Purnell herself was demeaned in one of these using a term the mayor himself might have chosen: “joyless”. Other journalists were informed of the consequences for giving her book coverage. There would be no access to “Boris” – not a price many are willing to pay.

 

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The biggest trouble with “Boris” as a politician, though, is not his symbiotic establishment bonds or his vast personal ambition, or his admiration for big money or his relentless showmanship, but his failure to initiate very much of lasting worth during a tenure as London mayor that is already dwindling towards its end.

Waging war on “waste”, the incoming Johnson shelved a cluster of gestating Livingstone transport projects, some of which he has ended up having to revive from scratch in different forms as the full scale of London’s population boom and its implications for infrastructure have become apparent. His City Hall has been more transparent in some ways than Livingstone’s, but critics complain that old pals and favoured business interests are given inside tracks. Thanks to localism, the mayoralty has accumulated extra powers and Johnson has been right to advocate further and bolder fiscal devolution. In these respects, he has advanced the institution he heads. He has not, though, done very much to advance London.

After at long last owning up to wanting to return to parliament (via the safe suburban seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip) while staying on at City Hall, he protested that a previous promise to do no such thing didn’t count because he’d led London out of the recession. In fact, he’d previously said more than once, and not without justice, that much of the capital had proved recession-proof.

He’s thrown down a welcome mat to global capital, wherever it hails from. He’s banged the Londonist drum loud, far and wide, and that’s part of the job. It should not be forgotten that he came to power amid less auspicious economic circumstances than Livingstone enjoyed. Yet the longer Johnson is mayor, the more he pales by comparison with his predecessor. For all his “Red Ken” reputation, Mayor Livingstone ran London largely as a mainstream social democrat, if a sometimes grouchy one with far-left quirks and causes. Innovative and pragmatic by turns, his was a shrewder, more nuanced and more productive approach to making a big city work. Even if all reservations are heaped on one side of the scales, Livingstone’s achievements outweigh them.

By comparison, Johnson has spent a good deal of his time finishing things Livingstone started or progressed and having mixed fortunes getting his own signature projects off the ground. For all its colourful appearance, his approach has adhered to the monochrome orthodoxies of his party’s free enterprise wing tip. It’s not been the huge disaster some rashly predicted. It simply hasn’t been very impressive. Yet an impression of endless triumph has endured.

In large part, this has flowed from Johnson’s ineffable self-belief and gargantuan hunger for getting the better of everyone else. His sister Rachel once said that the secret of her brother was that he’d worked out early on that life is a competition. His greatest triumph has been presenting the best of London, the best of Britain and the best of Conservatism as indivisibly vested in him and his persona. That is the force his opponents must counter in the months and maybe years to come. That is the sort of trouble “Boris” is.

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.

 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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