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5 June 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 12:11pm

Boris Johnson’s mayoralty was average at best — he’d struggle on the national stage

By Dave Hill

London learned that Boris Johnson was to become its mayor at five minutes to midnight on Friday 2 May 2008. The Conservative candidate, best known at the time as a plum-voiced wit, a game show panellist, a scruff, a fibber and an adulterer, rather than a dud former foreign secretary and a no-deal-touting Brexiteer, had not been expected to defeat his predecessor Ken Livingstone. There had been nervy assurances, now echoed in Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign, that the dizzy blond would knuckle down and be more of a chairman than a managing director. But the campaign had seen the irresistible emergence of what YouGov’s Peter Kellner dubbed the “Boris bonus” — a level of voter support for the Tory hopeful that comfortably exceeded that for his party.

That bonus, repeated when Johnson retained City Hall in 2012, is what many Conservative MPs are banking on. Its attractions are obvious. Johnson won twice in a city which, in all other respects, was leaning further towards Labour. Only at the 2010 general election did the Tories swing the pendulum the other way and, significantly, by a lesser degree to elsewhere.

How did Johnson do it? And what do his electoral successes and his mayoralty reveal about how he might woo and run the country?

The answer to the first question is partly that Johnson compellingly embodied the disruptive concept of the anti-politician — such was the populist entity known as “Boris”, the only politician who, as someone shrewdly observed, was recognisable to all from behind. It was partly that he capitalised on discontent in outer London, stoking suburban revolt as part of his “doughnut strategy”. It was partly that he won over some white working-class Londoners: post-2008 election analysis by Ipsos MORI found that the whiter the working-class ward, the better “Boris” did relative to “Ken”. And, importantly, it was also that he did something clever and subtle with verve and authenticity.

In his 2008 victory speech he characterised London as “a city whose energy conquered the world and which now brings the world together in one city.” That neat little line reconciled Johnson the nostalgist for a freewheeling, wave-ruling, Britannia with Johnson the champion of London’s openness to global labour and capital. The “Boris” mayoral act combined throwback nationalism with his particular brand of “celebrating diversity”. From his London platform he brought to a national audience his flamboyant display of economic and social liberalism. His comic haplessness was also part of this: he was “a laugh” who, in perhaps a not-so-fine Great British tradition, “muddled through”.

This “Boris” carried all before him. He needed to. The early months of his mayoralty were embarrassingly shambolic. In her fine biography, Just Boris, Sonia Purnell describes how Johnson hadn’t even picked a team of advisors when he first entered City Hall.

It was left to Anthony Mayer, the seasoned civil servant who, as the Greater London Authority’s first chief executive had worked closely with Livingstone, to break it to Johnson over dinner that, having been elected London mayor, he really ought to do the job. A string of early lieutenants disappeared amid clouds of scandal or, in the case of the cost-slashing businessman, Tim Parker, internal discontent. Only when competent London borough politicians began filling senior posts did the administration settle down.

Johnson’s mayoralty is most often denigrated for the cancelled Garden Bridge, the New Routemaster buses, the purchase of two water cannon which (thanks to Theresa May) were never permitted for use, and the lonely Emirates Air Line cable car. But some of this criticism is overdone. A more damning charge sheet would include the vast, stalled regeneration of Earls Court (a Tory borough project Johnson should never have waved through), the halving of the Congestion Charge zone to pacify west London motorists and the appointment of Evening Standard cronies to jobs they weren’t qualified for and did badly.

His Tory leadership campaign makes great claims for his record on crime, but there is little evidence that he made a decisive difference. The affordable housing stats he quotes flatter him: he was initially helped by Labour government funding and later allowed his free-market convictions to overwhelm his powers to maximise affordable supply. He gloried in the 2012 Olympics, but after others had done the heavy lifting. That said, he and his team made a good “legacy” job of putting the park to post-Games use.

His strengths were in trusting his more able policy lieutenants and his flair as an advocate for London — vital in a job with limited formal power. This probably helped Transport for London, which tends to run its own affairs, secure a reasonable capital funding settlement from George Osborne in 2010. In the same year, the troubled public-private partnership approach to upgrading the Underground was ended — an early example of insourcing. Johnson joked that it was a re-nationalisation.

But Johnson’s years at City Hall were, in most respects, just pretty average. Even Tories and business leaders regarded Livingstone’s reign as superior. Mayor Boris was extraordinary in his way, but mayor Johnson was the opposite.

Does the Boris bonus still exist? If so, it might no longer accrue in London. Johnson’s mayoral record could be a factor but Brexit is a bigger one (his national net approval rating is now -16 and 64 per cent of voters disagree that he would make a good prime minister, while just 25 per cent agree). The Tories were routed in the capital in the European elections, winning just 8 per cent of the vote and no seats. Some polling evidence suggests they could lose or fail to gain London parliamentary seats which are solidly Remain: Putney, Kensington, Cities of London & Westminster.

Even Johnson’s own seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip (where his majority was reduced from 10,695 to 5,034 at the last general election) could be at risk. A new hard-Brexit “Boris” might stem the flow towards the Brexit Party in pro-Leave, Essex border seats such as Romford. But perhaps few politicians are more likely to repel the capital’s Remain majority.

Dave Hill runs the website

This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series. 

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