I’m a one-nation Tory
He believes in the capacity of human ingenuity
Dave, he says, will be seen in a completely different light
Benedict Brogan interview with Boris
Boris Johnson was at work on Wednesday when Gordon Brown crashed into the northern rock that is Gillian Duffy. As a connoisseur of forced apologies – Michael Howard once sent him to Liverpool to grovel for criticising the city’s “mawkish sentimentality” – the Mayor of London is forgiving. “If we judged everybody by the stupid, unguarded things they blurt out to their nearest and dearest, then we wouldn’t ever get anywhere.”
Apart from the obvious lesson about never allowing anyone near you with a clip-on microphone, he is more interested in the subtext of the blunder than the mechanics. “The thing I thought was revealing, and went to the way he runs things, was the instant blaming of Sue Nye [Mr Brown’s long-serving sidekick whom he held responsible for introducing him to Mrs Duffy]. It’s always someone’s fault and the world is always organised by a hidden hand to conspire against him. It’s a slightly paranoid view of the universe. But it’s fundamentally insignificant. What matters is his stewardship of the country and the complete mess that he has made.”
Which is why Boris, as he is known from Bromley to Beijing, is more interested in the crisis engulfing Greece and the ramifications for Europe’s financial capital. We are in his office to mark his second anniversary as mayor, which falls tomorrow. It is no surprise that a classicist who is also a big fan of the City is keeping a worried eye on the drama unfolding in Athens. He fears we could be next if we end up with an indecisive result next week. “If we get things wrong next Thursday, this could be something that we have to face in this country. That’s why I worry about a hung parliament. If all we get is drift and indecision, then we will get the same response we have seen in Greece.”
London, he has always argued, illustrates what a bold, Conservative administration can do. He wants the leadership to take its inspiration from what his administration has achieved at this, its halfway mark.
He does not say it, but leaves the impression that he believes the Tories could be a bit more bullish about what they could do and just how possible it will be to slash spending. “What we found in London two years ago is that it is possible to make substantial cuts and savings without targeting front line services. Everyone knows this in the public sector. It’s a question of rebalancing it in a human way.”
He repeatedly describes his efforts as “human”, in effect adding his voice to those who have criticised Mr Cameron for failing to swaddle his talk of austerity in language that acknowledges that cuts mean jobs and jobs mean people being out of work. He boasts that in City Hall alone there is now an empty floor that has been let out to tenants because the mayor’s staff has been reduced by the simple expedient of not filling vacant posts.
His “recitation of triumphs”, as he describes the official list of achievements drawn up by his office, includes the freeze in the London share of the council tax, the lowest murder rate since 1948, 75 notorious bendy-buses removed, 5,000 new street trees, more bobbies on the beat, and £2.4bn in cost cuts.
But how easy is it really to find useful cuts? Employment laws and sumptuous public-sector redundancy arrangements mean the cost of reducing staff quickly can be higher than the savings achieved. “But if you are smart and committed and do it in a pragmatic way by taking people with you, there is fantastic scope for achieving success.”
He is still – for another week at least – the most powerful elected Conservative in the country. He won office despite bearing the same baggage as David Cameron: Eton, Oxford, the Bullingdon. And he’s made a success of it so far. We’ll have the verdict on Cameron Conservatism this time next week. But what is the secret, then, of Johnson Conservatism?
He doesn’t pause. “It’s founded on the belief that you can’t have wealth creation without social mission. And you can’t have a social mission without wealth creation. So I’m definitely in favour of stimulating the dynamic wealth creation sectors of the economy.” Unlike Mr Cameron, then, who says he will keep Labour’s new 50p rate of income tax on earnings over £150,000. “In practical terms, it means getting the state off the backs of business as far as you practically can.”
That’s fine, but why has he succeeded where Mr Cameron has not? The Tory leader has never convincingly shed the “toff” tag Labour has pinned on him. “I’m a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country. I want London to be a competitive, dynamic place to come to work.”
He is proud, for example, of having persuaded some of London’s biggest banks to pay what he calls the London Living Wage – a higher minimum wage of £7.60 an hour that reflects the higher costs of living in the capital.
He does not have Sky television at home, and watches very little, but he proclaims himself a techno enthusiast. He believes in the capacity of human ingenuity and technology – developed, built, marketed from here – to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change. His current enthusiasm is the new bicycle in his office, one of 6,000 that will be left around the city free for people to use. They will be public property.
“If anyone tries to nick them, I hope the public will be aggrieved and try to stop them. These are wonderful bits of London kit. For the larrikins and yobs, these are going to be a badge of honour to transport to improbable places, like the Taj Mahal or Tiananmen Square.”
He still hasn’t answered the question, though. Why has Mr Cameron struggled with his background, when Boris has not? He harrumphs and looks out of the window. Dave, he says, is going through the ordeal of the general election. “On Friday morning, when the mountain of government descends on his shoulders, he will be seen in a completely different light and all this nonsense about the Bullihumhumhum [he refuses to say the word] will fade away. It’s a psychological thing.”
Hang on: is he saying we have got a psychological block about Dave? He explains it as an advertising phenomenon – we don’t know we like something until we buy it. So with Mr Cameron, we attack him but once he is elected, it will all make sense. For Boris, this is uncharacteristically waffly. The point he cannot make, surely, is that there is no gap between the Boris we see and the private Boris. “Dave”, on the other hand, is accused of being a confection. Although they are due to appear together for the third time this campaign on Monday, it may be that the obvious difference between them explains why Boris has not been seen at Dave’s side more often.
Boris was elected London mayor on a proportional system but until now has opposed changing the voting system for Westminster. He recently debated against Alan Johnson, the Cabinet’s most prominent advocate of proportional representation.
“Although my side won the debate and I was listening to the arguments, I have to accept that there are arguments that are difficult to dispatch very easily. There is an unfairness in the current system. The advantage of first past the post is that it delivers a decisive result. But that very virtue may be disproved. If it turns out that we wanted to kick them out and we didn’t, that is a big argument against FPTP.” He still thinks the Tories will end up with a majority, but recent events have clearly recast his view.
Against convention, he has advice for Mr Cameron for both before and after polling day. If he wins next week, he should remember the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan: from the moment of victory, he will be advancing into the teeth of a gale of attention, opposition and relentless demands. “They will be focused on you with incredible ferocity. Just take things carefully. You have got to remember that in the post-election period the level of scrutiny and interest will be pre-electoral. Remember the early days of Blair and Bernie Ecclestone. There will be mines to tread on just because you are in alien territory, so the first thing is not to worry about that.”
But he will also find that the Civil Service is “fantastic” and willing to help. And that it will be “much easier to make savings without causing real pain than they are currently being told. There are lots of ways for the Government to save money”.
And for the last week of the campaign? “Just keep it up. Everybody is praying for it to be over. That’s why Gordon Brown goofed so badly. There’s just exhaustion. I’d try to take the weekend off.”