March 12, 2014
London Mayor Boris Johnson: man of the year?
For The Herald
LONDON — If leadership was determined by popularity and high office granted on the basis of positive publicity alone, there would be one clear winner of Most Popular Politician 2013. London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has swept the board this year in terms of popularity. The well-spoken, perennially jolly and fluffy-haired Boris may be a Conservative party representative but he regularly polls higher than both his party and those in government.
The BBC reported on December 17 that Boris was the most searched for politician in the UK during 2013, while pollsters Ipsos Mori demonstrated on December 13 that both the mayor and his policies were more popular than either Chancellor George Osborne or shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. When it comes to generating positive buzz, Boris is winning.
In part, this is due to his personality — or the personality he projects. A mixture of oafish charm and “British” decency combine to allow politicians, the media and the electorate to see beyond Boris’s upper-middle class upbringing in a way that Prime Minister David Cameron can only dream of.
Cameron and Boris were contemporaries at Eton, and ostensibly are playing for the same side in the Conservative party, but the mayor is likeable despite (or because of) his raffish personality and chequered history. Even Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, while slamming Boris on December 24 for being unable to take criticism, described him as an “incredibly funny, colourful sort of politician.”
As mayor of London, Boris has enjoyed an incredibly privileged and limited position. Unlike Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and even Balls, Boris is free to pursue projects that have an immediate impact on London life (such as the massive cycling programme known as “Boris Bikes”) as well as those that could ensure London continues to have a future as a leading global city, including plans for a new airport in the Thames estuary.
However, his constituency is small and his problems are localized; Boris does not have to deal with the complexities and nuances of national government.
This could change. Murmurings in the media have grown louder over 2013 and it seems that Boris himself is starting to fancy his chances for leadership. Commentators are quick to dismiss the idea as fanciful and unrealistic: despite seven years experience as an MP, Boris has never held a position of responsibility beyond London and personality alone will not be able to carry him into national leadership.
He is patently not fully trusted by his own party and there are doubts as to whether his charm would convince the electorate outside of the south of England. As Grant Shapps, Conservative Party chairman, stated in a radio interview in 2012, being prime minister was about learning how “to raise money, not just to spend it.” Prime Minister Johnson, let alone Conservative leader Boris, are still a long way out of reach.
A casual observer of the mayor’s recent activities could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, however. In a November 26 speech for the Centre for Policy Studies, appropriately titled the Margaret Thatcher lecture, Boris garnered headlines by apparently lauding inequality as a motivation for improved economic activity. In the “greed is good” speech, as it has since been nicknamed, Boris revealed his admiration for hedge fund managers and the “Gordon Gekkos of London”, in a reference to Oliver Stone’s classic morality tale Wall Street.
“I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy […] that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity,” said the mayor, while insisting that this greed need not be heartless and could be a spur for the economy.
For the mayor of what still aims to be a global financial centre, this speech and its underlying ideas are understandable; for a politician seeking to gain the support of a wider section of the population in a Britain that is still ostensibly in recovery, this is a very bold move indeed. The speech, in which Boris was described by the media as channelling Thatcher, was the equivalent of setting out his stall for what his government might look like. It is worryingly out of touch with what the people seem to want.
A politician known for hiding careful calculations behind seemingly outward bluster, it would come as no surprise if this were part of a much broader plan for Boris. However, the intervening weeks since the speech was made have seen a series of setbacks for the mayor in London, not helped by greater media scrutiny.
The mass bike hire programme, which covers 10,000 bicycles, was pioneered by the mayor and made possible through the sponsorship of Barclays Bank, was launched in 2010. Initially the bank put £25 million into the scheme for an original agreement from 2010-2015, although this was modified in 2011 until 2018 for a further promised £25 million.
However, Barclays, whose logo is emblazoned on each bike, announced on December 11 that it was pulling out of the scheme in 2015. The announcement was a direct hit on one of Boris’s most successful projects; although Barclays insisted the move was for purely commercial reasons, the decision may have been affected by increased media scrutiny following a spate of cycling deaths in the capital.
The second and definitely more damaging blow concerns Boris’s airport plans. It is widely acknowledged that London’s (and the UK’s) aviation capacity is almost at bursting point, with a solution required in the immediate future. Over the past three years, the mayor has been actively campaigning against a proposed third runway for Heathrow and in favour of a London airport in the Thames Estuary which would ease the pressure on Heathrow and Gatwick.
Boris’s stance is that the new runway would help London’s financial regeneration, but a commission headed by Sir Howard Davies presented a report on December 17 that poured cold water on the plan. The Davies Report will consider the Thames Estuary airport on the Isle of Grain (or Boris Island, as it has come to be known), but not among the shortlist of three more options, which include extending the runway at Heathrow or adding a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick.
The decision, which has relegated Boris’s estimated £65 billion project into the also-rans, provoked anger from the mayor, who described it as “catastrophic”, but relief from airlines and the major political parties. The Thames Estuary airport is widely seen as an expensive white elephant; the Davies Report suggested that the cost of the new airport would be closer to £112 billion, when compared with the £30 billion Heathrow expansion or the £18 billion Gatwick move. The problem Boris faces in this area, as with all others, is that his willingness to throw himself into big “legacy” projects are at odds with what is perceived to be national importance.
This is the dilemma the mayor faces. If Boris is to be taken seriously as a politician or future leader, he has to shed the pleasant buffoonery that sees him win popularity polls in favour of willingness to work at a national level. The mayor could do worse than show an ability to compromise, an interest in negotiation — and a little humility.