“When I make decisions about things, I do it as a gun to the head: legalise drugs or don’t legalise drugs, and OK, I’d legalise drugs,” says Laurence Fox – actor, contrarian and 2021 London mayoral candidate.
We’re discussing his views on policing and libertarianism, but his admission of impulsiveness epitomises the tone of his political career to date.
Fifteen months ago, Fox was mostly known for playing DS Hathaway in ITV detective drama Lewis, and for being the ex-husband of Doctor Who star Billie Piper, with whom he has two children. Few knew much of his background: educated at Harrow, where he was expelled weeks before his A-levels for being “troublesome”. The expulsion cost him his university place, so Fox headed to RADA instead (following the family footsteps: his grandparents, father, siblings, cousins and uncles are all notable names in the theatre and film industry). Throughout his two-decade acting career Fox has landed major roles across stage, film and TV, but has generally not been front-page news.
That all changed with an explosive appearance on Question Time in January 2020, which propelled him into the political arena. Fox embraced his newfound reputation as an “anti-woke bad boy”, becoming a prominent figure in the escalating culture wars. Courting controversy had its consequences, and Fox was dropped by his agent (“cancelled”, as he puts it) over his comments on race in November 2020, after he tweeted that Sainsbury’s was “promoting racial segregation and discrimination” with its recognition of Black History Month.
Now he is running for London mayor, under the banner of his recently launched Reclaim Party, promising to end lockdown if elected this Thursday. When we speak on Zoom with less than a week until polling day, he jokes that as party leader he’s finally got a job he can’t be fired from (“In trying to cancel me, they’ve created someone uncancellable”).
There is no doubt that Fox loves attention. At 42, he remains boyishly mischievous, erupting in squeals of excitement when he’s brought a gin and tonic as we talk, then launching into an impersonation of Boris Johnson (“If I put on a bit of weight, there’s every chance in my stampede back into show business in 40 years, when everyone’s forgiven me for telling them what I thought about life, that I could possibly play Boris”).
At times he gives the impression that the entire campaign is one big practical joke. He erupts in laughter when asked about his Conservative rival Shaun Bailey’s proposal to drug-test employees of City businesses: “No wonder your campaign hasn’t landed, mate. What are you on about? …What’s next, Shaun, check whether someone’s got a mild hangover when they turn up to work?” As for Sadiq Khan, he’s “far too busy virtue-signalling to do anything useful”, “tweeting about the menopause and Lesbian Awareness Week”.
In many ways, Fox is the anti-Khan. Whereas the London mayor is exceptionally polished even by normal political standards, too slick to ever give an off-key (or even vaguely interesting) answer, Fox delights in being as provocative as possible – sometimes to get his point across, sometimes just for the fun of it. He teases that he would have liked Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to have won the 2019 general election just to see Johnson in opposition, refers to face masks as “child abuse” and “little woke burka[s]”, and says the woman photographed whilst held down by police at the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common “was there to get in the papers, like the little narcissistic Antifa that she was”.
Policy-wise, his manifesto is all over the place. It includes a pledge of free bus and Tube travel for six months (dubiously costed on the basis that the mayor’s office has the ability to increase borrowing, though it would likely bankrupt Transport for London), promises “free speech gangs, to arm our young people with words, not knives”, and is based on the idea that the London mayor could choose to end lockdown in the capital – a power that resides most definitely in Westminster, not City Hall.
When questioned on this, Fox acknowledges that he wouldn’t actually be able to abolish Covid restrictions if elected, but argues that’s not the point.
“London is the biggest by-election in Britain, isn’t it? So you can turn around and say: this number of people are asking Boris to do that. And if Boris can change his mind in five minutes – which he can do anyway over anything, depending on what’s happening – then you’d have thought that pressure would be valid for the government… It’s essentially saying if you’ve got enough voters, then Boris would be forced to listen.”
It is undoubtedly true that Fox has enjoyed a rush of publicity due to his hardline anti-lockdown stance. While he is currently polling joint last with Count Binface, at 1 per cent, he comes third when Londoners are asked to rank the candidates according to how well they know what they stand for, above both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.
But Fox also maintains his campaign is not just about Covid and lockdown. It’s “about the cultural problem we’ve got in this country, the suppression of freedom of speech”, which he sees as something that is inextricably tied to how the UK has handled the pandemic and that will continue long after it is over.
“The people have an issue with their culture being defaced,” he says. This, epitomised by Fox’s manifesto pledge to “end the divisive and discriminatory wokery that has infected our city”, is what his Reclaim Party is all about – and why he intends to continue running and fielding candidates in elections after this week’s race.
So I ask him how he would use political powers to effect the kind of change he thinks the country needs.
“You don’t want to legislate about this stuff,” he says, before launching into a tangent about the Olympics and patriotism.
It’s not really clear what Fox does want to legislate on, beyond changing school history curriculums and cutting government funding to institutions that adopt Critical Race Theory. He talks about “supporting our culture”, but is scathing about the Conservative government’s Policing Bill and attempt to restrict protest (“I think it’s very Trumpian, actually, and pretty crap to go ‘you’ll get ten years for defacing a statue’”).
Fox is quick to list the things he thinks are wrong with society – namely wokeness, cancel culture, and also knife crime – and insists he has views on other policy areas, such as the economy and infrastructure. But when pushed to outline what they are, there is a tendency for him to return to his favourite themes:
“These people are feeling massively disenfranchised and identity politics has left an entire generation of young white kids unable to get to university,” he explains, when asked how he would “level up” left-behind regions of the UK. “So what I would want to do is remove this concept of skin colour being very important, and focus on where people are struggling.
“And ultimately what you want to do is you want to attack things like crime in areas that have been deprived so you can increase land value [to] GDP and all of these things, so people feel safe and they want to invest in these areas. I’m very keen on developing a children’s charter, so that kids from across the social economic spectrum are taught similar things in schools. You want to encourage kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to speak publicly so that when they go to a job interview they’re not restricted by the fact that no one’s listened to them or paid attention to them. And you want to have that going across from your poshest school to your least posh school.
“I think these are the areas that help. It’s a cultural approach, to say, look, we’re all equal, we’re all valuable in the eyes of society, and therefore we need to give everyone an opportunity to thrive within it.”
Fox knows he doesn’t fit in a political box – a fact he exults in.
“I think I’m more of a hippie, it’s just that the media like to present me as Adolf Hitler Mark II – which is within their rights, I suppose,” he laughs, suggesting that his supporters should give their second choice vote in the London mayoral election to the Lib Dems (“as long as they didn’t go on too much about pronouns”).
And in many ways he is a textbook liberal – championing peaceful protest even when he disagrees with the cause and campaigning for the right to be left alone by the government.
But then he gets onto crime – a topic on which it seems he has been thoroughly coached, as one of the key ways to challenge Khan’s record – and the tone shifts completely.
“I could say, for example, I want to bring a law in about knife crime. I would say I’m going to stop and search every child – not black children, not white children, not Asian children – I’m going to stop every child to make sure that kid knows, when it walks the streets of London, that they’re going to be stopped at some point, everybody.”
Doesn’t mandatory stop-and-search conflict drastically with his defence of civil liberties?
“I don’t think you’d find a single person in society who thought it was a good idea that kids were walking around with knives this big,” he says, gesturing. “So there is a justification to stop and search people.”
“I think it’s a false equivalence to try to draw a parallel between them… I think it’s really important actually that people stand up against absolutely pointless and illiberal laws, without any evidence to back up that they are solving the problem. I think you need dissent. It’s important to dissent against them. I wouldn’t call defying an authoritarian government law-breaking. I’d call it freedom-retaining.”
My entire conversation with Fox is full of such contradictions: he’s a liberal who wants to hand the police more powers; an anti-woke reactionary running in the progressive metropolitan centre of the UK; a man who says race shouldn’t matter but who wants to bring every line of conversation – from economic regeneration to protest legislation – back to identity politics.
Fox is obsessed with racism, or rather with the implication that he is in any way guilty of it, even while playing up to the reputation for contrarianism he has developed since his appearance on Question Time, when he accused an audience member of being racist towards him by calling him a white privileged male.
“Three hundred years ago, actually, it was probably quite woke to be a slave trader. It was kinda like ‘well look at what we’ve managed to do, look at how beautiful Liverpool is’,” he tells me.
Minutes later, when discussing his party’s imminent legal review on protecting free speech, he says:
“You can’t just walk around saying to someone ‘you’re a virulent racist’ which an editor of Time Out called me the other day on Twitter. And you’re like really? Evidence, please.”
Fox is so determined to protect free speech he is willing to curtail speech he feels threatens that ideal. He is in the process of suing people who have called him a racist on Twitter. When questioned on this, he argues this is something he has been compelled to do as part of his defence (Fox is currently being sued for libel by three people he called “paedophiles” on Twitter after they accused him of being racist). He does not mention the fact that he has also threatened legal action against at least one other Twitter user who is not connected to the lawsuit: the Time Out journalist referred to above, who is a sub-editor.
So for all his full-throated defence of free expression and the right to offend, there is some speech that crosses Fox’s red lines.
“Calling someone a racist, what you’re doing is you’re suppressing free speech, because no one wants to be called a racist, right?” he says. “No one… We do need to take this word ‘racist’ to court, it needs to be taken to court…
“You can see what it’s done to my career, it ended it like that. The allegation of racism, utterly unfounded, ended my career. And that’s fine by me, but we’re going to have to take this to court. My defence [in this lawsuit] is look, you can’t do this, you’re stifling free speech this way.”
If Fox wants to be treated as a credible candidate, he has a way to go. He doesn’t have the policies, messaging or ideological discipline to make an electoral impact, and the polls reflect that. His comments about returning to show business and his career being ended suggest part of him would be relieved to go back to acting.
But if he is the third most widely known candidate for London mayor, it seems unlikely this is entirely down to his appearance on a TV show that ended half a decade ago. And if Fox is full of inconsistences, so is London: a hub of globalism and diversity where 40 per cent voted Leave in 2016, a city generally treated as a Labour stronghold that elected Boris Johnson for two terms.
From speaking to Fox, I get the sense that he has tapped into something the mainstream parties are wary of: a year’s pent-up anger and desperation at the cruelty of Covid restrictions, however necessary they may have been. Attitudes to lockdown are, according to Demos polling, as socially divisive as the issue of Brexit, and Fox thrives of controversy. Whether lockdown frustration maps onto other fronts in the culture wars as emotively as he seems to think is another matter.
“It’s important that London at least has a choice,” he says. “…See what happens.”