When Boris Johnson was elected as London’s mayor last year, the Evening Standard had openly campaigned for him, and there seemed little for the Conservatives to fear in either the local or the national press. Boris cycled in to City Hall with all the self-confidence of the most powerful Tory in Britain.
But then the Standard was sold to a Russian billionaire who promised a shift to the centre ground and ran an ad campaign apologising for previous bias. The Guardian increased its London coverage and many new left-wing bloggers began to emerge. The mayor was faced with an ever less Tory media.
When I started my own blog last year, I was surprised by the lack of London political news coverage. Outside elections, London government had been largely ignored. Only one blog, Mayorwatch.co.uk, reported on City Hall. Even the right, dominant online nationally, was all but extinct in the capital.
In fact, what little attention right-wing bloggers have paid to Boris has been critical. ConservativeHome claims to represent Tory activists, but in practice acts as a pressure group for the party’s right. It has not escaped bloggers’ notice that Boris, as mayor of one of the world’s most diverse cities, has been more keen to mollify the left than to further a hardline Tory agenda.
Recently this has led to open confrontation between Boris’s administration and the right wing of his party. It started with a blog post by the ConservativeHome owner, Stephan Shakespeare. “Real problems are not solved – in fact, there’s not even a discernible attempt to solve them,” he wrote. A series of posts by the Tory councillor and Daily Mail writer Harry Phibbs followed, criticising Boris for failing to sack “diversity officers” at City Hall.
Boris’s deputy mayor Richard Barnes then told the Guardian that Phibbs did not “represent the Conservative Party that David Cameron is promoting across this country”. In response, Phibbs accused Boris’s team of “seeking to ingratiate themselves” with “the Livingstonian blogosphere”.
This exchange underlines how Boris has refused to depart too far from the agenda of his predecessor. London is a diverse and liberal city, and any mayor would have to act accordingly; however, this only goes some way to explaining the city’s political shifts.
Early on in his administration, Boris cancelled the weekly press conferences held by Ken Livingstone, inviting hand-picked journalists to stage-managed “policy launches” instead. But attempts to co-ordinate his press coverage have had unexpected results. Starved of access to the mayor, reporters have looked elsewhere for their scoops. Over the past year, more and more stories originating from the London blogosphere have made their way into the mainstream media.
Wading through committee papers, attending Assembly meetings and building up relationships with insiders, bloggers have broken many of the stories that have dogged Boris’s first year. His use of taxis, his advisers’ expenses, his broken promises on rape crisis centres, have all gone on to make headlines.
The London left is succeeding online by setting the news agenda. It remains to be seen how the left can replicate that nationally. But Cameron, like Boris, cannot take the support of his party for granted. In London, the Tories’ electoral success has provoked a resurgence from the left, but also restlessness among those on the right of their own party.
London’s changing political landscape has created both difficulties for the Tories and opportunities for their opponents. These opportunities may soon be taken up at a national level.
Adam Bienkov blogs at Torytroll.blogspot.com