If a successful, wild-haired businessman running for high office on a ticket of apathy to out-of-touch elites sounds like old news, think again.
I’m in the lobby of Pimlico House in Lambeth, barely a mile from Elephant and Castle, where plumbing millionaire Charlie Mullins was raised.
Below signed portraits of his famous clientele sit cuttings from long-closed newspapers next to a glass cabinet of blue, Pimlico-themed memorabilia. After our interview, I receive a scale model of a VW van, number plate: WE F1X.
The choice of gift was not arbitrary; Mullins is running for mayor of London in 2020, insisting that his leadership can “fix” some of the capital’s problems.
Rallying against Sadiq Khan’s tenure thus far, Mullins, a native Londoner and purveyor of common sense, thinks London’s focus needs to be business first and foremost.
“I just think Khan’s not a leader, he doesn’t come from a business background, and I think that’s important to be mayor of London,” says Mullins. “I think he was a solicitor or something like that. I’ve got nothing against him personally, it’s a tough job. I think we need more of a larger-than-life character – we need someone that’s got some balls.”
Inspired and, he says, empowered by Margaret Thatcher to start his business in the eighties, Mullins’ politics are that of individual responsibility fused with working-class determination to forge himself a better life.
“She encouraged us,” he says. “She said ‘you buy your house, you own your own business, you can do well in life’. I haven’t heard a government since say anything like that. She was a great inspiration.”
Central to the nascent Mullins manifesto is getting young people into work via apprenticeships. While his voice was heard in the Cameron years (he was a business adviser), with Theresa May and Khan, he doesn’t feel that they are “drinking from the same teapot”. As mayor, he would make travel for all apprentices free.
“Getting people into work, I think, resolves most of the problems. And when I’ve been trying to explain this to the government before, they’re not getting it. If you put someone into work they become part of society – eventually they start putting into the economy rather than draining from it. They’ve got a purpose in life. Putting someone into work would cut down on crime, it would cut down all the rehabilitation, prisons and that.”
As for the money to pay for this free travel, his answer is “the economy”. The government, says Mullins, needs to prioritise work. The policy is as yet uncosted, but, to his defence, when we met last Wednesday, he had only decided to run for mayor three days prior, following years of friends and colleagues suggesting he climbed the greasy pole.
As a former Tory donor who described May as “incompetent” and Jeremy Corbyn a “twat’, will he stick to his Tory roots, or run alone?
“I’m better off independent. I actually think it would be more of a downside to be in bed with Theresa May. And people have said to me ‘oh you could get financial backing, it would be stronger’. I’ll use my own money for my own campaign. That’s how sure I am. I ain’t in it for the money.
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“All I’m saying is that I don’t want to be tied in with any party. ’Course I’ve had people come up to me and ask if I want to be involved with them, but I’m doing this for London. I’m doing it for Londoners and I’m a working class guy. We don’t want any posh politicians in there.”
I’ll use my own money for my own campaign. That’s how sure I am. I ain’t in it for the money.
His antipathy to posh politicians – “the old school tie brigade” – comes up throughout our conversation.
Mullins may be well-monied, but posh he is not – and proud of it. Upon arrival, I interrupted him eating a kebab and chips among staff in the canteen. He’s the real McCoy. It’s the sort of feat a photo-opportunistic politician simply couldn’t pull off without looking a fool.
He has working-class appeal, I suggest, that may resonate with those left behind by Labour’s elitist-socialism: his straight-talking, common sense approach may well pay dividends.
“Look, I’m not frightened to speak my mind,” says Mullins. “And most politicians can’t even answer a question, you know what I mean? And if I don’t know the answer, it’s because I don’t know everything. But I will build the right team around me to make sure we get the best we can for London people.”
Mere days into his campaign, with some two years until the election, Mullins realises that he has a long way to go before fully addressing the many issues facing Londoners. To pick an issue out of a hat, Mullins selects pollution. He says Khan’s focus on it is a classic example of the incumbent’s misplaced priorities.
“I believe Khan slipped up when he brought the T-charge in, because he hammered businesses. It’s costing Pimlico £7,000 a week extra because we’ve got a load of old vehicles. Why didn’t he have a bit of common sense and spread it out? Pollution has been around for years. Obviously we don’t want to be killing people, but his priority is pollution. He should concentrate on helping businesses, rather than discentivising them.”
Naturally the B-word – Brexit – can’t be absent from any conversation about political aspirations. Mullins bankrolled Gina Miller’s landmark Brexit case against the government regarding Article 50, which she won.
Pimlico House even had an 100ft banner emblazoned with “Stronger In” strewn across its roof for the duration of the campaign.
“Yes, I am a Remainer,” he admits, but “I don’t think it’s about that now. Just accept that we’re going to leave. This ain’t about Brexit any longer, this is about doing the best for London people, and I’ve got the passion, I’ve got the enthusiasm, and I’m in the real world. Once we have left, in 2020, I think we’re going to need someone in our corner to battle even harder for businesses and people in London.
“I don’t care how blunt I am. I’ve said before, I’m not a saint, I’m not a perfect guy. There’s only one perfect man in the world and they nailed him to a cross. But I understand people, I understand what London needs, and I’m not a talker I’m a doer.
“I was born in London, I live in London, I work in London. Everything I do is in London. Am I passionate about London? ’Course I am.”
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.