Andrew Gilligan, Boris’s penny-farthing Cummings, pedals back to City Hall

Andrew Gilligan, Boris’s penny-farthing Cummings, pedals back to City Hall

Back in the autumn of 2008, a few months after Boris Johnson had become London Mayor for the first time, journalist Adam Bienkov spotted similarities between online comments posted at certain websites and articles published by the Evening Standard, which had campaigned for Johnson with adoring zeal.

The subject of the comments was the Mercedes-Benz Citaro, better known as the “bendy bus”. These vehicles had been brought to London’s streets by Ken Livingstone and were relentlessly attacked by the Johnson campaign and its media allies. Arguments about the pros and cons of “bendys” (they had some of each) rolled on after his May election triumph.

A piece by Bienkov about the issue for the blog he published at the time attracted this anonymous response: “There’s a certain mad, self-destructive nobility in the Ken Left’s dogged defence of some of the most disliked things in London,” the unnamed commenter wrote. “What’s next – a campaign to rehabilitate Rose West?” This rang a bell with Bienkov, who drew attention to the following passage from an Evening Standard column:

There’s a certain mad nobility in the way Boris’s opponents seem determined to strap themselves to the most unpopular causes going. You wonder what’s next – a support group for double-glazing salesmen? A bid to rehabilitate that misunderstood feminist icon, demonised by the Right-wing media, Rose West?

The author of the Standard column was a man called Andrew Gilligan, whose byline had graced a long string of articles attacking Livingstone during the 2008 campaign. Another comment with echoes of the Gilligan column appeared under a piece at the Guardian:

There’s a certain mad, self-destructive nobility in the Ken Left’s dogged defence of some of the most disliked things in London – Sir Ian Blair, bendy buses.

That comment was posted by someone using the name “kennite”. This “kennite” individual had been active on Guardian website comment threads for some time, cheering on Johnson and deriding Livingstone. Sometimes, “kennite” spoke up for Andrew Gilligan. As early as July 2007, he took issue with columnist Polly Toynbee, who had called Johnson a “sociopath” and Gilligan a “rightwing columnist”. This displeased “kennite”, who wrote:

Polly’s absurd description of Boris Johnson as a “sociopath” betrays, I think, her real panic about his excellent chance of sweeping away Ken. Nor will it do to write off everyone who opposes Ken or New Labour as, by definition, a Daily Mail reactionary. If Polly had ever read any of Gilligan’s columns, she would see someone writing from a broadly left-wing, if anti-New Labour, perspective.

Also active on Guardian comment threads during this period was a commenter called “andrewgilligan”. But it is not surprising that Bienkov (among others) strongly suspected “kennite” to be Gilligan using a pseudonym. If so, it was no capital crime. But using an online persona to defend and promote yourself in the third person – sockpuppeting, as it is known – is regarded in some circles as rather shifty if not unethical. At the height of this small affair, Gilligan was invited to clear the matter up, but did not accept. The Boris-backing “kennite” disappeared.

Today, Gilligan is Prime Minister Johnson’s special adviser on transport and last week it was announced that he has been made one of “the two government special representatives” who will attend meetings of the Transport for London board and two of its committees as one of the many conditions of TfL’s recent financial bailout. What kind of man is Gilligan and what might his influence on Sadiq Khan’s policies, TfL’s delivery of them and the transport body’s long-term future be?

If the “kennite” episode suggests someone much concerned with his own reputation, prepared to use subterranean means to enhance it and susceptible to overdoing things a bit, history provides supporting evidence and, perhaps, some sympathetic explanation. In January 2004, Gilligan, then working for the BBC, became briefly and uncomfortably famous when the report of Lord Hutton’s Inquiry into events surrounding the death of government weapons expert Dr David Kelly found that a report Gilligan had broadcast for the Today programme claiming that the Labour government of that time had knowingly over-stated the military danger posed to Britain by Iraq had been “unfounded“.

Hutton concluded (chapter 8, paragraph 281) that a less sensational story would have been justified, but instead Gilligan had “broadcast a very different and much graver allegation”. Gilligan’s editor of the time told a superior that problems with him included “loose use of language and lack of judgement in some of his phraseology” and the “loose and in some ways distant relationship he’s been allowed to have with Today.” (paragraph 284). After Hutton’s report was published, Gilligan resigned from the BBC. He conceded that “some of my story was wrong” but that Hutton would have concluded that most of it was right if he had “fairly considered the evidence he heard”.

Throughout his ordeal, Gilligan had enjoyed the support of a Conservative MP who was also a well-known journalist at the time – Boris Johnson. And when Johnson became the Tory candidate for London Mayor, Gilligan devoted himself to getting him elected. As with that unfortunate Today broadcast, much of the output the Standard published under his name overstated its own importance (sometimes to a quite ludicrous degree) but in this case there was no distinguished judge to retrospectively sort substance from hyperbole. And the Standard of that time, edited by another firm ally of Johnson, Veronica Wadley, showed no desire to reign Gilligan in.

Gilligan went on to work for the Telegraph, where he again threw himself into discrediting Livingstone when he sought – and failed – to regain the mayoralty from Johnson in 2012. By then, Gilligan had become a keen cyclist and in January 2013 Johnson gave him the freshly-created job of “cycling commissioner”. Much of Gilligan’s 2008 mayoral election material had made the case that Livingstone’s administration was blighted by cronyism. Was he not now a beneficiary of cronyism under Mayor Johnson?

BBC London’s political editor Tim Donovan put it to him that his appointment was “cronyism of the worst kind”. Gilligan replied that his was “a political appointment” and that “all Mayors are entitled to appoint political supporters” to what he was at pains to characterise as “a political role”. The fact that he had no prior experience in the design or delivery of any kind of transport project was, apparently, beside the point. The job needed “somebody who has the confidence of the Mayor, which I have,” he said. He commenced his duties on pay of £38,000 a year for a two-day week.

Did the tyro “commissioner” do a good job? That depends on what you’re looking for. For those believing that the key to nurturing a large and universal cycling culture in London is to instal special infrastructure on roads, notably segregated lanes, Gilligan’s approach was welcome and correct. His mantra was “build it and they will come”, though, any objective jury is surely out on whether “they” have come in sufficient numbers  to justify the costs. His attitude to dissenters could be explosive. On Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show he responded to an item critical of the bike lane added to Vauxhall Bridge, by informing his host that the station’s reporter was “a liar”.

As for his working habits, colleagues from the time express strong views. “He has no doubts,” said a London Assembly Member who had dealings with him. “He’s one of those people who can’t be wrong”. More senior mayoral aides remark on a clanging yet oddly innocent insensitivity to those around him and the problems he sometimes caused for them. “He’d go round making a mess, I would have to clear it up,” one of them shrugged. Another was less forgiving: “He is a poisonous bastard.” Similarities with Dominic Cummings have been noted. Johnson was once denounced as a pound shop Donald Trump. In those terms, maybe Gilligan can be seen as a kind of penny-farthing version of Johnson’s senior adviser. But one transport insider makes an unflattering contrast: “He is dumber than Dom.”

Though Gilligan was not retained by Sadiq Khan when he became Mayor in 2016 and some of the schemes he wanted implemented were changed or dropped, the same broad approach – re-engineering roads in the name of cyclist safety and the belief that this will liberate immense suppressed demand – has been retained. Gilligan, though, has not been satisfied. It was, curiously, the Guardian that gave him space last year to rubbish Mayor Khan’s cycling programme last year.

Now he is back at City Hall, albeit remotely for the time being. And the government’s intrusions on TfL and Khan’s autonomy already bore his mark: he was spotted weeks ago at TfL’s offices in Southwark in the (perhaps reluctant) company of his more collegiate successor, Will Norman; the prominent “active travel” programme also demanded by the TfL bailout terms is right up his street (as is more congestion charging, which might not endear him to Tory London Assembly Members); sources say he’s at the forefront of trying to force through the suspension of free travel for Londoners under the age of 18, despite the legal and technical obstacles this presents and the social justice arguments made against it.

The question now is what influence he will have over TfL’s and, by extension, the London mayoralty’s future. Khan was at pains last week to tell MPs that TfL and government officials have been co-operating well on the latter’s review of the transport body’s finances, and Khan’s claim to have kept his 2016 promise to make TfL more slim and efficient is considered valid by outside observers.

But the outcome of the government review, including the options it sets out for TfL’s future, remains to be seen. And what already seems very clear is that Johnson and former City Hall aides in and around his government do not like Sadiq Khan, know there is little chance that he will lose next year’s delayed mayoral election, and think they could run London much better than he is. Andrew Gilligan appear to be far from an exception – and he still enjoys the trust of Boris Johnson.

Photograph from GLA.

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