WHEN Boris Johnson took the Mayoralty from Ken Livingstone in 2008, many observers thought a repeat victory in 2012 was a foregone conclusion. If recent polls are anything to go by, that most certainly isn’t the case: with just two months to go, the race is too close to call. “The polls are very close and it’s going to be a very tough fight,” concedes Johnson when we interview him in his office at City Hall.
The Boris we meet is “serious Boris”. Dressed in a sombre navy suit and tie, he spends the entire interview peering over a lever-arch file stuffed full of papers and notes; his trade-mark bumbling Borisisms are in short supply. As always, the image has been carefully cultivated even if it appears accidental. When our photographer asks to take a picture of him standing against his bookshelves, he frets about what the weighty tomes might say about his character. He suggests he stands in front of a giant map of London instead.
There is a sense – both in the Conservative party and the public at large – that his first term has been something of a missed opportunity. He lists his main achievements as reduced crime, Tube upgrades, Boris bikes, the end of the bendy bus and Oyster on the overground. “All those things were actually difficult to deliver – and they could easily have been jettisoned,” he says. Maybe so, but it is hardly the radical agenda that many hoped he would pursue.
Johnson admits as much and claims a second term would be more ambitious, with a genuine attempt to break the power of the transport unions by using driverless trains on the underground. “I think you’ve got to be clear that, when I was elected, I was not known primarily for being a municipal politician, but I think since then that has changed. I feel like someone who’s built half the bridge. There’s a huge amount to be done.”
When asked who they prefer, most Londoners pick Johnson over Livingstone. But when asked who they think achieved more, they plump for Ken, partly because he had eight years rather than four, but also because he “shaped the office of Mayor” and “gave it national prominence”. Those words, by the way, are taken from Johnson’s incredibly gracious 2008 victory speech. They could end up haunting him.
He isn’t feeling quite so charitable to his opponent these days. He portrays his Livingstone’s administration as wildly left-wing and dangerously profligate, a “1970s-style-approach” where “money was exploding out of every orifice and being fire-hosed at all sorts of useless projects”. Since the Tories took over, he says, economies have been made and the “money has been put where it needed to go”. He claims, for example, that London is much safer than under Livingstone: “The murder rate, which you can’t fudge – you know modern forensics make it very difficult to dispose of a corpse – is down by a quarter”.
Johnson also warns that the return of Livingstone, who recently claimed he would “hang a banker a week until the others improve”, would destroy London’s reputation as an international business hub. “The idea that you drive growth in London by offering to hang one of them a week seems to me to be completely mad. There is a risk of a kind of hostility towards wealth creation that can do long-term damage.”
The race is so close because Livingstone has pledged to cut TfL fares by seven per cent, a move that will save commuters a significant amount of cash. But Johnson is scathing of the policy, saying there are only three ways of paying for it – a new tax or congestion charge, sharp cuts to services and investment, or higher fares in the longer-term. “That’s the single most likely thing. He’ll go on for a year or so and suddenly declare he’s bankrupt and say fares have got to go up by RPI plus 38 per cent or whatever. Or else the government will bail them out.”
Indeed Boris dismisses Ken’s entire manifesto as “Wonga economics”, in reference to the much-derided pay-day loan company. He says pledges such as reinstating the educational maintenance allowance for poorer sixth-formers or unwinding changes to housing benefits – both Westminster policies, not Boris ones – are either unaffordable or impossible to fulfil. “All you’re really saying to people is, you know, I’ll see you right for eighteen months or a year or so.”
Since entering City Hall, Boris has been unafraid to play hardball with the chancellor when it comes to securing funding for London. Word has it he even threatened to pen an anti-Europe column on the eve of the Tory party conference to secure money for Crossrail. “I hope Londoners want someone… who will get finance from government to deliver the big investments.”
That leverage would be lost under Livingstone, Johnson claims, to be replaced by an acrimonious relationship that would prove “fatal” for Londoners. He says there is a risk that Ken will use his perch in City Hall to oppose the government at a national level.
“That was certainly what happened in the 1980s when you saw an approach that was ludicrously confrontational and adversarial,” he says, in reference to Ken’s days as a firebrand leader of the Greater London Council (which was subsequently abolished by Margaret Thatcher). For his part, Johnson says he will not be “needlessly adversarial” – even when it comes to Bob Crow and the RMT.
Johnson ends the interview on a high note, arguing that “London has an amazing future”. He singles out growing “investment in IT and high-tech stuff” as a sign of great things to come. “You know Dave and co all go on about Tech City, actually they’re not wrong – it’s not just politicians babbling away about the latest fashion. This is a city where huge numbers of companies are setting up to pursue these apps and what have you, which I can barely understand. I can understand the economic benefit that they bring even if I’m not myself a great consumer of Moshi Monsters or whatever the hell it is.” His technophobia is one trait that isn’t put on for show. Although he says he “loves iPads”, his mobile phone – an old-fashioned Nokia – belongs in a museum.
It is rather fitting that Boris seems so uncomfortable with technology, because this contest is distinctly old-fashioned. Two larger-than-life pros fighting hand-to-hand in an election they cannot afford to lose. When we ask the Mayor if he thinks Livingstone will cut fares, he stumbles before giving a telling answer. “I don’t think… Well, I don’t think he’ll get elected. That is my hope.” It’s going to take more than hope to win this battle – and he knows it.
“Livingstone ran a 1970s-style administration. Money was exploding out of every orifice and being fire-hosed at all sorts of useless projects”