“He never struck me as that remarkable,” a former colleague of Guto Harri’s told me as rumours spread that he was set to leave City Hall for News International. “But I guess he must have something going for him.”
The key thing that Harri has going for him is his close relationship with Boris Johnson, who Private Eye recently described as the man “fast becoming the Digger’s favourite politician”. Under Harri’s guidance, Johnson has remained consistently and vocally loyal to the Murdochs, despite most other political allies remaining quiet or deserting them altogether.
When the Guardian first reported on phone hacking at News International, the Mayor publicly dismissed the story as “a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour party.” And as the Met began their investigations, his policing deputy repeatedly tried to persuade them to scale back their inquiries.
“The caravan should move on,” insisted Boris as yet more revelations emerged. “Real people are so apathetic about the Leveson business,” he repeated again in the Telegraph last week. “In all its lavish coverage of Murdoch, hacking and BSkyB, the BBC never properly explains the reasons why other media organisations – including the BBC – want to shaft a free-market competitor.”
As the election approached you might have expected Boris to keep his distance from NI. But just one day after Rebekah Brooks was arrested in a dawn raid, Boris met with the Sun‘s editors for lunch. Following their meeting, the paper lavished extensive coverage on the Mayor, describing him as fighting hard for “White Van Man”, a claim based on his policy of extending free parking on some London roads by ten minutes. His opponent Ken Livingstone meanwhile was described simply as a “villain”.
Harri too has remained loyal to his old contacts. “He is known to be in constant contact with Andy Coulson,” explains one biography (now outdated). Such constant contact seems to have paid off with Harri freely admitting that his new appointment will be seen as “part of an irresistible geometrical pattern” between the Conservatives and News International. But what does Harri have to offer the company, aside from his loyalty?
His time as Director of Communications at City Hall will chiefly be remembered for his policy of limiting access to the mayor to all but the most unquestioning members of the media. Shortly after Boris’s election, Guto cancelled the regular City Hall press conferences. Out went the dry reports and question and answer sessions of the Livingstone years and in came an endless series of celebrity-backed ribbon-cutting events where the likes of Kelly Brook, Barbara Windsor and Peter Andre all posed grinning with the Mayor.
Questions from journalists were strictly limited at these events and Harri has consistently kept Boris away from any interviewer who cannot be relied upon to play nice. Chief among the “awkward squad” is BBC London’s political editor Tim Donovan who has repeatedly been refused interviews with the Mayor on the channel’s weekend politics show. When Donovan dared to report on Boris’s links with News International, he earned a sweary on-air rant from the mayor. Boris has since gone on to attack BBC London as his “chief opponent” during the election campaign.
Other journalists have been submitted to more underhand attacks. When Boris’s former colleague Sonia Purnell set out to write his biography, “sources close to the Mayor” privately briefed that Purnell was a spurned and embittered admirer of Johnson, a smear that was hinted at in much of the coverage of her excellent book.
Along the way Harri has gathered a number of critics on the right. Rather than being a straightforward Murdoch appeaser, they accuse him of actually spending far too much time trying to win over people who will not support the mayor no matter what happens. Despite Boris’s public grumbles about the left-wing media, Harri invited over a hundred journalists from the BBC and the Guardian to the Mayor’s media reception at City Hall last year. The Sun, by contrast, received just six invites.
What Harri understands is that in a left-leaning city, Boris needs to appeal well beyond his own party. Under his guidance, Johnson has fought against Labour’s stereotype of him as a swivel-eyed Tory, backing measures such as the Living Wage and an immigrant amnesty.
Harri yesterday accused Boris’s campaign manager Lynton Crosby of nearly wrecking his re-election by only appealing to core voters: “That was almost the danger of the campaign, that he became more Tory at a time when being Tory seemed to be more of a liability than an asset.”
Despite his unassuming and amiable exterior, Harri is an effective and formidable operator. In four years he has transformed Boris Johnson’s image from national joke to a serious contender for the Tory leadership and Number Ten. This is a remarkable feat.
Transforming the image of News International and the Murdochs will be a far harder task, but if anyone can do it, then perhaps Guto Harri can.