When Boris Johnson was coasting towards winning the Conservative Party leadership contest and realising his dream of being king of Downing Street, his critics on the Left made their usual mistake of being shocked and appalled by the very idea of him (which just bolsters his rogue appeal), calling him a toff (which he is, but no one cares) and “a racist” (which most people, quite rightly, don’t think he is), while all the time making a fuss about prominent parts of his record as London Mayor that didn’t actually matter all that much.
True, his eight years at City Hall were bigger on flamboyance than achievement. But as an early general “Brexit election” looms, his opponents might be advised to discard their usual charge sheet and seek instead to exploit the gaps between the good things Mayor Johnson promised and what he actually failed to deliver, and ask the electorate “can you trust this man to run a bath?”
Let’s begin with the New Routemaster bus, quite literally a vehicle for Johnson’s novelty and nostalgia, ego and ambition. Contrary to popular complaint, it was never much hotter on hot days than other buses and wasn’t much more expensive to buy either, while being for some time significantly cleaner than the rest of the London fleet. Even so, there are a string of mismatches between what was pledged and what occurred.
Initially, Johnson claimed the cost of developing the bespoke bus would be borne by its manufacturer. In the event, Transport for London coughed up. Johnson boasted that his bus would see the return of bus conductors and a permanently open rear platform, symbolising liberation from health and safety nannyism. Yet both of these defining features soon disappeared. He was quite certain that other cities across the world would shell out for the rights to copy the New Routemaster’s design, but not one ever has.
His cycle hire scheme, another signature transport policy, also failed to live up to its hubris. In 2008, Candidate Johnson assured voters that the whole thing would be paid for by commercial sponsorship. But in the end, TfL had to find the lion’s share of the finance and, later, boroughs had to cough up too.
What about the Mayor’s Fund for London, the charity to which “Boris” was convinced London’s top bankers and other loaded individuals would donate their spare millions in a grand revival of Victorian philanthropy? Well, the fund was set up and still exists. But cash was never showered on it in the great cascades Johnson predicted. The Garden Bridge, of course, was a further Johnson wheeze sold as a clever way to get charitable donors to augment the public purse. But though taxpayers did their bit, the trust funding did not materialise and the bridge scheme fell to bits.
Then there was the fantasy “no strike agreement” with the Tube unions he mooted when running for Mayor in 2008, conjuring comedy sketch images of Posh Boris persuading Cockney Bob Crow over a cup of tea to set class conflict aside and accept that the bosses were’t such a bad lot after all. And who remembers Tim Parker? Now chairman of the National Trust, he used to be a company boss with a reputation for making hard-nosed efficiencies. Johnson brought him in to effectively run City Hall and chair Transport for London like a lean, mean business operation. It ended soon and did not end well. Parker departed after just three months and from then on most of the hard graft was done by senior London borough Tories and others who knew their way around the corridors of London government power and its interfaces with Whitehall. It was those individuals who brought about the more solid, managerial successes of the Johnson years, rather than any products of his blue sky thinking.
There’s another clue to how to get the better of him: dial down the outrage about right wing attitudes (which half the time he displays just to wind his enemies up) and even his cavalier treatment of parliament. Instead, try coolly pointing out the many times during the past ten years or so when his bright ideas for revolutionising how governing institutions run have failed and his famous optimism has turned out to be hot air.
A new opinion poll has seen some of Johnson’s ratings rise since he became Prime Minister, especially for seeming decisive. But more than half of voters think him untrustworthy – over twice the percentage who think the opposite – and more than 40 per cent still consider him incompetent. The truth is that “Boris” is a charming chancer who believes himself a dazzling visionary. Maybe the question to get voters asking themselves about him is not whether they are shocked or offended by his antics, but whether they really want such a person in charge of their country and their lives.
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