The London method: a look back at Boris Johnson’s stint as Mayor as he battles to become PM

Boris Johnson had the most engaging office of any senior politician I have ever met. Tucked at the top of City Hall’s glass bubble, his lair as Mayor of London was lined with books — mostly written by himself — and bits from newspapers — mostly about himself.

It was full of all sorts of stuff, rather than the usual dusty computer, beige sofa and second-rate art from the Government store which most ministers make do with. 

Bike helmet in one corner, rucksack in another, probably some old clothes somewhere else, and a model of a Routemaster bus missing its radiator, it felt like the home of some egocentric well-paid TV academic-turned-hack.

It was a real place, a bit impromptu, inhabited and owned by him rather than just worked in. If you created a play about someone like Johnson in the West End, you’d pick props like this.  

When I visited, which I did occasionally between 2012 and 2015 as a ministerial adviser, it was never boring. You looked forward to going.

Johnson launching an Overground service (Jeremy Selwyn)

The magic of the man lay in the sense of theatre. He was putting on a show — and he obviously knew it and was eager for it to be enjoyed. It was a sort of seduction, as he peered at you across the room, neck arched, head forward and eyes hooded, a cross between an eagle and an owl.

The other thing I remember is that Johnson only came alive when he was leading a gang in his room. He needed people to riff off. His noisy, prickly performance in last night’s leadership debate showed how he struggles when he’s not the only centre of attention.

That’s not the same as trying to run everything. Meetings with him involved a team — not a few deferential officials, but individuals who actually ran things and competed with each other and tried to manage him. He’d throw phrases out to them to pick up, assert something, chuck us challenge.

A lot of the skill of this team — and some in it were very good — seemed to lie in giving Johnson the sense that he was shaping big issues while keeping him away from the detailed grind of making stuff happen.

If you pretended to be daunted by the thing he had just asked, and pretended to haggle over it, he’d usually settle for more or less whatever it was you wanted to do in the first place — as long as you gave him a sense he was making a difference. 

He never once met the rail unions directly as Mayor, for instance — his team made sure of that, even though he spent a lot of time in meetings going on (rightly) about the stranglehold they have over London’s transport. They kept him away because they knew it would go wrong.

And if he becomes prime minister in a bit less than a fortnight, this is how he will want to run Britain. He used his time as Mayor as the basis of a bid to run the country — wiping out in his own mind and everyone else’s his unhappy spell as Foreign Secretary. Did it work — and might it work again? 

Even the hardest of Johnson critics, and I am one, couldn’t help fall for the way he’d break through the dull mediocrity of most government life — all those boring announcements about “delivering” things — and give things a bit of fizz. When he talked of London as the greatest city on Earth he really seemed to feel it. 

Free wheeling: Johnson rides a Boris Bike — originally a Ken Livingstone idea (PA)

And stuff did happen as a result. One of the few big powers London’s Mayor actually has is over transport. Johnson’s predecessor Ken Livingstone spotted it and manipulated things to bring in the congestion charge, raising enough money to fund more buses.

Johnson sustained that interest in infrastructure. I remember him talking with energy over a pizza and bottle of wine one lunchtime about how sorting out transport is the best way to shape the future you can find — and some of what London is like today is the result.

The cable car over the Thames from near the O2 Arena was Johnson’s doing, and however uneconomic, it wasn’t the stupidest idea in the world in a London whose commercial might has shifted east — and at least it is fun to use, as a few people do. 

Boris Bikes were not his idea — Livingstone promised a scheme — but he was the Mayor who pushed on with them and identified himself with cycling, and made Transport for London get the scheme under way fast and make it a success that is now busier than ever. 

It was Johnson who decided to get rid of bendy buses and get a new Routemaster designed and introduced. Lots of politicians could have promised it. Not many would actually have got the new buses on the streets.

But then, lots of politicians would also have worried about the baking heat on the windowless top decks, or asked who would pay for the expensive conductors needed to keep the doors open so the platforms could be used to jump on and off (answer: no one paid, so the platforms are useless).

It was Johnson who picked Andrew Gilligan as his cycling adviser — it is said the Mayor wasn’t brave enough to reverse out of a half-made decision once news of it appeared in the Daily Mail.

However infuriating you found Gilligan (the answer for most people was “very”), without him and Johnson’s refusal to bend to the pressure of all those who had good reasons to delay the Cycle Superhighways scheme, we wouldn’t have seen them built.

Hate the routes, and you can blame Johnson. Love them and you’ll have to thank him too. Canary Wharf loathed the Embankment cycleway, which it feared would slow taxi trips out east, and lobbied hard but that didn’t stop them. So he’s not weak.

But don’t think everything he says will happen either. If you want to know how real some of his hopes turned out to be, why not try skiing at the Westfield Centre in Stratford? The point is you can’t, despite a £200 million scheme he backed there in 2013.

We once had a meeting in which Johnson banged on for a bit about the vital importance of the project and asked why central government was opposed. The next item on the agenda was his request for lots of money to make Stratford rail station busier, with a new platform.

The former Mayor on the first Routemaster bus (EPA)

We pointed out that he could either have the ski centre or the platform but not both, because they were planned for exactly the same spot. “Is this true, gang?” he boomed. It was. We never heard of the ski slope again. 

There were plenty more schemes like that, and it’s no disgrace — in government you’d never get anywhere if you only tried things that were certain to happen.

Johnson wasn’t ever interested in numbers or the detail of things but he did like firing up the big sense of romance. And he’d keep turning to the same people: as Mayor he had a team working for him.

He’ll find it tough, if he gets to Number 10, to discover that Cabinet ministers aren’t his advisers and that Downing Street can be a small, lonely and powerless place.   

Already the names of his old advisers are cropping up — people such as Doug Oakervee, the engineer he has asked to review HS2.

That, by the way, is being taken as a sign he won’t cancel the project, though he hates its plans at Euston, with the line running right up to his father’s old house — which was eventually bought out for millions.

Oakervee was one of the drivers of his obsession with opposing Heathrow expansion and his plan for a massively environmentally damaging and unworkable new airport in the Thames estuary instead. 

I could never really work out what it was that drove Johnson’s obsession with this scheme — which had all sorts of consequences, including his opposition to expanding London City Airport. Even though the local council backed it, he didn’t have any legal power to stop it and there was no political gain for him in it. 

Maybe his anti-Heathrow stance was just crude politics. Maybe it was self-interest. Or maybe it was the thrill  of pushing on with something massive, however impractical, as a sort of talking point that was more glorious than  the boring task of trying to decide  if Heathrow should have two runways or three. 

The more everyone explained what was wrong with the idea of shutting it and moving east, the more interesting it became to him, like writing a controversial newspaper column with lots of letters in reply and hopefully a BBC invite to appear on Question Time. It made him special and different.  

In a way, Brexit has become his new estuary airport, even though it is by many magnitudes a much more terrible and damaging idea. I’m not sure he will care when people tell him this.

But all his bluster about the glories of flying from somewhere by the Thames didn’t make the scheme take off. Maybe, as long as he’s allowed to talk about Brexit, he won’t mind if that doesn’t actually happen either.


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