Boris Johnson has confounded his critics, says Matthew d’Ancona. The contest will go to the wire, but our man has proved himself to be both shrewd enough and serious enough to take charge
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the next Mayor of London…’ A January dinner at the Dorchester in honour of Boris Johnson, and it falls to me, as one of the hosts, to introduce the Tory candidate. I look across the room at the high-rollers, hacks, friends and acquaintances who have come along to toast the candidate and, in some cases, to see if he is for real. Many are already Boris-positive; others merely Boris-curious.
Not for the first time, I appreciate the predicament that confronted Boris when he decided to run for mayor last July. I am reminded of the film-maker played by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, whose fans say they love his movies — ‘especially the early, funny ones’. He faces the objection of the prim pundits: namely, that a man of such wit should not stand for mayor at all, as if a sense of humour were a disqualification for high office. But he must also deal with the expectation of the fans that he will import all his chatshow charisma to the race. Tonight, you can tell that the dinner guests still crave the ‘early, funny’ Boris. They want the Lord of Misrule to poke his tickling stick at Red Ken.
And this is not what is on offer: by no means. The Dorchester barman has dreamt up a new ‘Boris’ cocktail, but the man himself declines to savour its delights. He is more concerned by the noise of the air-conditioning in the dining-room, and the music that is playing in the background, and whether it will distract attention from his speech. Charming and amusing as he undoubtedly remains, the Boris on show tonight is presenting himself not as a comic insurgent, but as a serious candidate, less interested in the showbiz glamour of victory — though he undoubtedly wants that — than in doing the job itself.
He talks about the urgent need for a change in City Hall, the exhaustion of the Livingstone regime. He offers, as a taste of the manifesto to come, a handful of practical, limited policies, knitted together by a desire to make the city safer, less fearful and more civilised. And, as he speaks, something happens: the guests, many of whom were hoping for political cabaret, start listening to what he is actually proposing. By the end of the evening, they are chattering about Routemasters, congestion charging and keeping the City competitive. When he arrived, ruffling his hair, he was cheered to the rafters as the Tory jester-in-chief. He leaves the event, muttering into his phone, acknowledged as a contender who, it is overwhelmingly clear, means business.
An obvious health warning: Boris is my friend and distinguished predecessor in the editor’s chair. At The Spectator, we practise a genial variety of Shintoist ancestor worship, venerating the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, from Addison and Steele, to Johnson and Johnson (Frank and Boris). In these pages, and on our Coffee House blog, we have stood shoulder to shoulder with our blond alumnus from Day One. We were with him at the first, and we will stay with him to the last. And if he triumphs on 1 May, we shall — of course — claim that it was the Spec wot won it.
That said, I write this primarily as a Londoner: someone who has lived in the city all his life (south, north, west, east, in that order), is generally reluctant to leave the place at all, and feels a profound allegiance to what Andrew Neil described in last week’s issue as this ‘21st-century British city-state with the world as its hinterland’. Hell, I even wrote a novel that was in essence a love letter to London. It matters to me very much who runs the place and commands the mayor’s £11.3 billion annual budget.
So why Boris? The answer ‘why not, old boy?’ — the Boujis and Bullingdon answer, so to speak — won’t do. You don’t hand London over to somebody just for a wheeze. Incumbency should never be confused with entitlement to office: a confusion that has been Livingstone’s fatal error. But — equally — a desire to make mischief is not a sound reason to endorse a challenger. As Boris himself warned his admirers early on, a Mayor must be much more than a Bloody Good Bloke, a Pearly King of Japes.
Certainly, he has confounded those who said his campaign would be substance-free. To mention a few of his proposals: 4,400 extra police community support officers; the phasing out of bendy buses and competitive tendering for a new Routemaster (very controversial, that one); the withdrawal of free transport rights from those who abuse them; new trusts to offer affordable housing to first-time buyers on old municipal land; more air-conditioning on the Underground; the dumping of Livingstone’s £25 congestion charge; fines on utility companies that dig up the roads; more cycle parking; free travel for injured veterans; an audacious plan to use the Proceeds of Crime Bill to allow the Met to keep money confiscated from drug dealers to fight crime; and so on, and so on. There is a detailed policy plan for Day One, Week One, the First Hundred Days.
Much more important than such inventories, however, is the general trajectory which Boris proposes, the direction of travel. The binding theme of his candidacy is a yearning for a city that is less fraught with fear, that does not crackle with the threat of violence. Imagine Giuliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ of crime woven into Disraelian Toryism: Robocop with a sense of compassion.
I do not care how many statistics Mayor Livingstone brandishes to demonstrate that our city has become safer in his hands. There are plenty of other figures that prove just the opposite (not least the fact that there are now nearly twice as many robberies with violence a year in London than in the larger city of New York). But it boils down to intuition, the scent in the citizen’s nostrils. And one of the many reasons Boris has captured voters’ imagination is that he has engaged with this anxiety, and speaks to their overwhelming desire to reclaim their neighbourhoods, to feel secure once more. It is a tall order, no doubt about it. But it is absolutely the right priority for a new mayor.
You can tell that Ken knows his challenger is on to something: because the questions the Mayor has been asking Boris — who, exactly, would advise you? Do your sums really add up? — are the questions you ask someone whom you fear is close to victory. Ken has stolen ideas from his opponent like a greedy jackdaw, including Boris’s proposal for a new scheme to help businesses to donate to charity that he initially scorned as ‘a throwback to Charles Dickens’s 19th-century world’. In politics, it is often very sensible to nick your opponent’s best lines. But if you do so, you also forfeit the right to dismiss the same opponent as an amiable amateur. A buffoon is not worth plagiarising.
If Boris wins on 1 May, he will truly have run the political gauntlet. From the very start, the attacks on him were ferocious, not least because the stakes are national as well as local: the Prime Minister cannot afford to lose London as well as Edinburgh. To face the daily provocations of First Minister Salmond and Mayor Johnson would be intolerable for Brown. Already, Boris has promised to ‘stand up for London on every issue that matters, whether it falls under the mayoral remit or not’, to use ‘every strand of mayoral power to fight against Labour government over-regulation and over-taxation’. Imagine London as a Tory stronghold against the Gordon Empire, with Boris as our clean-shaven Asterix. And — unlike the PM — he would have an electoral mandate.
I think Labour believed it could cripple his campaign before it began in earnest. For its part, the Tory high command worried Boris
was leaving it too late, that he was coasting towards defeat. Rightly, he was compelled to apologise for unacceptable language he had used about black people, albeit in a satirical context. But Ken was suspended for four weeks in 2006 for comparing a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard. Neither candidate has a spotless record when it comes to such sensitivities.
Livingstone has always played the cheeky chap Cockney card with brilliance — although, as I have written before, he is more Bill Sikes than Artful Dodger these days. Throughout the campaign, he has presented his Tory opponent as a right-wing interloper, a political colonialist who does not belong here. In Monday’s Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown went even further, declaring that Boris ‘does not have the sensibility of a Londoner; he is not one of us’. One of us? Who, exactly, does she mean by ‘us’? What an irony that a journalist who has supposedly fought for inclusivity and diversity for so many years should end up using the grumpy language of the golf club membership committee.
To adapt Whitman’s phrase: London is large, it contains multitudes. Sorry, Yasmin, but ‘inclusive’ means including Old Etonians, too; diversity covers well-spoken white men as well as everyone else. As the philosopher John Gray has written, we live in an age in which ‘pluralism is an historical fate’, in which life is — in Salman Rushdie’s image — gloriously ‘mongrelised’. Hence, this is an article by a half-Maltese journalist about a Tory candidate of Turkish descent (see Norman Stone on page 16). In such a mixed-up, commingled world, it makes no more sense to vote against Boris because of his accent and his schooling, than it would to vote against Ken because of his nasal twang or his interest in newts. It is surely time to sear such infantile tosh out of our political judgments once and for all.
Yet, for all the invective and the smears, this contest has been a terrific one, a decathlon of democracy. Boris and Ken — along with the amiable Lib Dem gooseberry, Brian Paddick — have gone into battle against one another more than a dozen times. Compare and contrast the inability of successive national party leaders to mount a single television debate before a general election. Hardly a day seems to go by now without another on-screen punch-up between Boris and Ken, another have-a-go hustings.
Localism has been in apparently terminal decline since Crosland told the town halls in 1975 that ‘the party’s over’. Rate-capping, the abolition of the GLC, the proliferation of quangos, Brownite centralisation: as Whitehall has grown ever more powerful, so public interest in local elections has (quite rationally) diminished. But the Ken and Boris Show has brought fire and fascination back to British local politics. This has not been a contest between two branch representatives of national parties but a titanic struggle between two big personalities, reminiscent of an American gubernatorial or mayoral race. One can only hope that the contagion spreads to other cities, in other elections. In the past few months, in London at least, it has seemed that, far from being over, the party might just be starting.
Can he win? Both camps say they think it will go to the wire: the opinion polls have been inconclusively tight. The Tories’ great problem in previous mayoral contests has been ‘differential turnout’: that is, Labour voters turning out in droves in, say, Lewisham, while most people stay at home in Kensington and Chelsea. Here, Boris’s celebrity should serve him well. But public recognition of Ken is very high, too. Fame alone will not do the trick — as the Johnson campaign well appreciates.
Should he win? Yes, he really should. He has passed every test set for him by the naysayers, and emerged from the crucible with a very different public image. There has been a change, probably irreversible. ‘The red nose isn’t going back on,’ as he told one gathering.
In the end, to behold the Mayor and his challenger is to behold the old and the new, a generational choice. Ken is the defender of the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports wife-beating and the execution of homosexuals. He is the friend of Hugo Chávez. He is the man whose power has rested for a quarter-century upon the so-called ‘rainbow coalition’ of minorities, a politics of identity that has now hardened into cantonisation and subsidised mini-fiefdoms. The fall of Lee Jasper, Livingstone’s disgraced equality adviser, is a parable of that decline: what started in the Eighties as an attempt to redistribute power to powerless minorities has ended up as just another municipal gravy train, a multicultural variant of Tammany Hall politics that has nothing to do with modern London in all its magnificent complexity and dynamism. Enough already.
In this campaign, Boris has self-evidently struck a chord, energised the punters. He is charming, for sure, but this is not just charm at work. Where Ken stands for fragmented grievance, Boris stands for shared aspiration. The Mayor embodies the last, cunning gasp of 20th-century municipal socialism; his challenger offers a 21st-century brew of liberal Toryism, environmentalism and robust common sense on crime.
Today, the capital city needs change. In this long, gruelling, vivid campaign, with all its twists and turns, the Tory contender has shown that he has what it takes to give London a fresh start. Which is why, on Thursday, the greatest city on Earth should choose Boris. So come on, Londoners, what’s it going to be? Have we got votes for him?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 26, 2008