“I think the issue of trust in politics is absolutely central to this election,” said Boris Johnson during last week’s BBC Question Time leaders’ special. He maintained that fundamental to the corrosion of trust of late is “the failure of politicians to deliver Brexit”. It has been argued, of course – though not by the Leave-inclined leader of the Labour Party – that Johnson’s main campaign pledge to “get Brexit done” is itself untrustworthy. The former Labour leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair is far from alone in pointing out that leaving the European Union, whatever your feelings about that institution, will not draw a nice, clean line under Brexit but, in truth, be just the end of the beginning.
Johnson knows that perfectly well, but he’s sticking to his bullshit in the hope that not too much of it will stick to him. He has grounds for optimism, because his eight-year tenure as London Mayor demonstrated an exceptional capacity for making claims that did not bear scrutiny yet managing to get away with them.
This was partly the media’s fault: barely a handful of journalists (and here I blush) concentrated on what the Conservative Mayor actually did in City Hall, rather than, say, his flamboyant pronouncements or his manoeuvres against David Cameron. But now that he is seeking a majority in parliament there is another chance to pull him up about some of the numerous large unfounded boasts he continues to make about his achievements at City Hall.
A particularly large example occurred during the Question Time broadcast. Asked about growing inequality under recent Tory and Tory-led national governments, Johnson said:
“For most of that time I was running London, and when I was running London we reduced the gap between rich and poor. And one of the things I did, which I’ve now brought in to government, we introduced the living wage, we massively expanded the living wage. When I was Mayor of London, that became a national policy, George Osborne nicked it from me, an act of theft I was perfectly happy to condone, and it’s become a national policy.”
Let’s have a good look at that statement.
Depending on the measures used, it can indeed be argued that the gap between the richest and the poorest in London lessened slightly when Johnson was Mayor: for example, the Trust for London reported in 2017 that the income gap between the highest and lowest earners had decreased during the previous five years, four of which coincided with Johnson’s second mayoral term. However, it attributed this to a combination of a decline in the value of earnings at the top end of the scale and simultaneous increases in those at the bottom end due to hikes in the National Minimum Wage, rather than to anything Johnson did.
Johnson’s words also give the impression that the London Living Wage, a rate significantly higher than the National Minimum Wage calculated by the Living Wage Foundation which employers are under no legal obligation to pay, was “introduced” by him. It wasn’t. The London Living Wage is an idea with roots at the beginning of this century, championed by the campaign group Citizens UK. Johnson, to his credit, encouraged London employers to adopt it, but so did his predecessor as Mayor, Ken Livingstone. There is, in short, no sense at all in which Johnson “introduced” the London Living Wage.
Neither was it correct for him to claim on Question Time that the Living Wage or its special London version “became a national policy” which the then chancellor, George Osborne “nicked” from him. In April 2016, one month before Johnson ceased to be London Mayor, Osborne brought in a new, higher statutory level of minimum pay rate requirement which applied to people aged 25 or over, and called it the National Living Wage. But it was not and still is not as high as the voluntary Living Wage, let alone the London Living Wage. The latter has just risen to £10:75 per hour; the National Living Wage lags far behind at £8.21 per hour. All Osborne “nicked” was the Living Wage name, and he didn’t nick it from Johnson, to whom it has never belonged.
Were we to be very generous, we might allow the possibility that Johnson’s confusing words Question Time were due to the intensity of the occasion. But that is harder to do when we also consider other things he said he achieved as London Mayor. “If you look at my record as Mayor of London, we outbuilt Labour by miles,” he said. That is a large and loose assertion, which inherently attributes to London Mayors more control over the rate of housebuilding in the capital than any of them have ever had. But even if by “we” in this case Johnson was referring to the number of “affordable” homes whose construction he had a hand in getting built, many of those were enabled by financial support from a Labour national government.
“We massively cut crime,” was another, now familiar, claim. There was “a 50 per cent cut in the murder rate,” he said. It is the case that there was a steady reduction in the annual number of homicides – a definition which embraces manslaughter as well as murder – in London under Johnson, but it was a continuation of general downward trend in homicides going back some years before he became Mayor.
And it is only arguable that the murder rate fell 50 per cent during his two terms: the homicide figure in 2007 (to be precise the 2007/08 financial year) was 163 and the lowest it reached under Johnson was 94, in 2014, before going up again. London’s population had risen during that time. The excellent Full Fact team has calculated that the homicide rate fell from 21 per million Londoners to 11 per million, which is close to half. But what, if any, influence Johnson’s approach to policing had on the murder or homicide rate is, in any case, hard to quantify.
Boris Johnson can be charming, but he’s a chancer. With him, politics is too often less about he has really achieved than what he can get away with claiming he has. Fellow journalists, beware. Voters too.
Dave Hill, who founded and runs On London was the Guardian’s London commentator from 2008 until 2017.
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