Boris Johnson heckled for almost two hours in Lewisham

The mayor was not made to feel welcome.

Boris Johnson faced one of the most hostile audiences of his mayoralty last night at the People's Question Time in Catford, attacked relentlessly over his role in supporting the closure of Lewisham A&E, his money-losing cable car, fire station closures, gun and knife crime, the cross-river tram, and his climate "sceptic" Telegraph column.

The majority of the event, which Boris is legally mandated to attend (explaining why he was to be found in the lion's den), was spent focusing on the closure of the local accident and emergency department and Lewisham hospital. It's a particularly sore point in the area, because, as Rowenna Davis explained, the hospital isn't being closed because it's under performing, but because other local hospitals are under performing. The intention, it seems, is to drive "business" to those hospitals by closing the successful one.

Despite the published schedule, the A&E closure was discussed as part of nearly every topic, from housing:

 

 

To the economy:

 

 

In addition, there was a section at the start dedicated to it. Lewishamites forced the Mayor to confront the fact that, while he is frequently outspoken on areas he has no control over, such as taxation or immigration, he pleads inability when asked to do the same with the A&E. Similarly, a zombie statistic—that "100 lives would be saved" by the move—was repeatedly brought up by Boris and shot down by attendees, including local MP Heidi Alexander.

At one point, a local doctor pointed out that the Mayor's responsibility for tackling health inequalities, and said that by ignoring Lewisham's effect on that, Boris was being cowardly. It's fair to say he lost the plot at that one. Darryl Chamberlain posted a recording of Johnson's reply:

 

 

It's rare for Boris to get this angry publicly, though he has a reputation for a bit of a temper behind closed doors. The recording also makes clear just how hostile the crowd was; he can barely be heard over the heckles and jeers.

The other hefty load of criticism was reserved for the cable-car (officially called the "Emirates Airline", just as frequently referred to as the "dangleway"). Connecting two tourist attractions, the O2 Dome and ExCeL exhibition centre, the link was sold to south-east Londoners as a new river crossing in an area sorely deprived of them. In fact, after a burst of use during the Olympics, the cable-car—which can carry as many passengers per hour as a modestly-frequent bus service, but costs almost three times as much and doesn't accept travelcards—has fallen into such disuse that the European Regional Development Fund has stepped in with an £8m boost to its ailing finances.

Johnson seems to have accepted that, as a public transport project, the dangleway is a busted flush, instead defending it as a tourist attraction to Lewisham:

 

 

Since one of the Mayor's first acts in office was to cancel the cross-river tram, an ambitious proposal from Peckham to Camden crossing the river at Waterloo bridge, the cable car had a high bar to cross. Judging by local response, it hasn't.

The wonderful @bitoclass has storified the entire meeting if you want more Boris schadenfreude than you can handle.

Boris Johnson. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser