Saturday, May 22, 2010

When friends fall out

The Spectator was Boris Johnson's plaything, the launch-pad for his campaign for the London mayorality. It is therefore enlightening to see this week's cover article:
Has Boris lost his grip?

The article that depends from this presumption is, sadly, hidden behind a subscription wall.

So, as a public service, here is what it says:
Must do better: Boris Johnson’s half-term report

Mira Bar-Hillel says that the lovable London Mayor was once a lodestar for the Tories nationwide, but his intellectual laziness and a tendency to listen to bad advice is leading him astray.

On Question Time last month, Boris Johnson, London's Mayor, was asked about his plans to build a new airport in the Thames estuary: an idea seen as reasonable by some and insane by others. As he blustered amiably away, saying not very much, a lady interrupted and asked: 'Why can't you just admit it when you are wrong instead of waffling on?' The audience roared with approval.

It was an Emperor's New Clothes moment. The innocent questioner had put her finger on Boris's fatal flaws: he can't admit he's wrong, but he's a little too lazy to do his homework properly, and that often leaves him intellectually denuded. The Mayor of London giggled, then drifted into silence; the cameras kept rolling and a question began to form itself in viewers' minds: just how well suited is Boris to power?

The questions that first arose in that silence echo even louder now, after the coalition deal. For unhappy Tory back-benchers and for the disgruntled membership, Boris is the Prince over the Water. His sister Rachel spoke for many when she tweeted — as the results came in — 'It's all gone tits up! Send for Boris.' And Boris has never made much of a secret of his rivalry with David Cameron. He has opposed his party leader on major contentious issues: amnesty for illegal immigrants (Boris is in favour), taxing bankers' bonuses and the 50p tax (Boris is against), the Tories' refusal to commit to funding the new airport Boris wants in the Thames estuary. The relationship between BJ and Dave is one of jovial, almost fraternal opposition. But if the Lib-Con pact falls apart, if Cameron falls under the number 59 bus, then the party may well be tempted to 'send for Boris' and find him a safe seat somewhere.

But before the grass roots start growing around Boris, it's worth taking a careful look at what sort of Mayor he is. Having served two of his four years, it is no longer premature to ask if this lovable, quotable Mayor can actually deliver. And I'm afraid the verdict on his mayoralty is the same verdict given by most newspapers to his new Routemaster bus unveiled on Tuesday: nice idea, good intentions, but shame about the bungled execution.

I first met Boris Johnson after his mayoral candidacy was announced in the autumn of 2007. I was desperate to see Ken Livingstone gone from City Hall for reasons too numerous to mention and couldn't wait for his replacement. I was keen to discuss with Boris the issues I had been covering for the London Evening Standard for over 25 years, and which I knew mattered deeply to the electorate: planning and housing. As he was MP for Henley at the time, we met in his parliamentary office and we chatted for two hours. He was charming, highly intelligent, quick-witted and sincere. The London he wanted to lead was, for him, a city of brick, stone, slate and tile, where the traditional streetscapes worked best and where Ken's towers were unwelcome and unwanted, apart from in the business centres of the City and Canary Wharf.

It was music to my ears and we parted with a warm handshake. I was then summoned to join Boris's election 'planning task force'. The session was a bit chaotic, but I clearly recall urging Boris to end Ken's eight-year war with the London boroughs and promise not to interfere with their democratically made planning decisions unless it was absolutely necessary. He agreed, and this message, especially to the mainly Tory outer boroughs, was acknowledged as one of the election tactics which helped win him the crucial suburban vote.


Boris also expressed strong opposition to skyscrapers in predominately low-rise suburban centres, with a specific mention of the 'penny whistle' at Ealing Broadway. I looked forward to a second meeting, where I hoped to raise the subject of London's massive housing crisis, which Livingstone had shamefully allowed to grow and fester. It never happened. The 'task force' proved a nine-minute wonder, but I remained optimistic.

After Boris was elected, I went to City Hall to brief officials about planning and housing and spoke to Richard Blakeway, an able and willing young man who didn't know very much but seemed keen to learn and took copious notes. In July I was approached by a firm of headhunters. They were, they said, looking for a Deputy Mayor for Housing and wanted to interview me as soon as possible. But after the interview, I was then told by the nice chap who had questioned me that the position of Deputy Mayor for Housing had been, er, abolished, and would I be prepared to be put forward as Director of Housing Policy instead? OK, I said, what the hell.

The poor man was too embarrassed to then tell me, some days later, that this position had also mysteriously disappeared, and I received an email instead. It was all very Boris. Oh, and it was eventually announced that the Mayor's housing adviser would be ... Richard Blakeway. The result, I regret to report, is that London has no housing policy.

Having laid my cards on the table, I am of course open to accusations of sour grapes. So be it. But my point here is not to suggest that Boris should have listened to me so much as to identify a pattern which he has established over these last two years: well-meaning enthusiasm, followed by listening to bad advice, several U-turns, and an unsatisfactory result.

In the past year I have crossed swords with the Mayor's office on several issues, some with Boris's direct involvement. And my sad conclusion is that, while I am still convinced that Boris is hard not to like and that his intentions are for the most part genuinely good, he (like Prince Charles) is too weak, too lazy and too ill-advised at the highest level to implement his policies. He lacks attention to detail and, because of his desire to be liked and to avoid confrontation with City Hall staff and agencies, he is all too easily fobbed off. And, as the Question Time woman revealed, he will not admit mistakes. Remember the ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’ — as he described the truthful reporting of one of his marital infidelities.

Worst of all, he seems to have fallen among thieves. No fewer than five of his top ‘aides’ have famously been forced out of office in lamentable circumstances, severely damaging the reputation of the man who first appointed them and then — in some cases — allowed them to stay in post long after it was no longer tenable. In March he had to sack Bertha Joseph, deputy chairman of the London Fire Authority, who had spent £900 of charitable donations on two ballgowns — but only after rejecting earlier demands to do so. He also waited far too long before dismissing the appalling Deputy Mayor Ian Clement, who was then convicted of misusing a City Hall credit card. It really makes you wonder who he consults before making his appointments.

A few weeks ago, an Audit Commission Report condemned the useless London Development Agency (LDA) for having ‘failed to meet the minimum requirements to manage its finances to deliver value for money'. The LDA was the anti-Conservative creature of Ken and his cronies and Boris should have dealt with it decisively and severely from day one. Instead he continues to rely on it for advice and has allowed it to mishandle the Olympics land budget to the tune of £160 million.

Then there's the cost of the Olympics Village (where athletes will be crammed to flats in blocks resembling 1960s council estates which no one will want to buy when the games are over) which is around £300 million more than can be justified. Boris seemed genuinely worried about this at first, but then allowed himself to be fobbed off by the Olympics Delivery Authority.

Another example of Boris's devotion to high-profIle projects and wilful blindness their consequences, is Crossrail. Boris is essentially a kind man and a natural defender of victims — so why hasn't he managed to curtail Crossrail's awful bullying of the residents and businesses standing in its way? St Patrick's Church in Soho Square is a listed building. It houses a soup kitchen which feeds and cares for some of London's most vulnerable inhabitants, but it is still waiting for assurances from Crossrail that it will be fully compensated for any damage done to it by the project. Its priest, Father Alexander Sherbrooke, has approached Boris but warm words have so far yielded no discernible results.

Even on what I believed to be heartfelt opposition to skyscrapers in unsuitable loca¬tions, Boris has been flip-flopping alarmingly. Almost immediately after his election, he failed to oppose an LDA-backed tower on the South Bank in spite of its negative impact on historic views. Having objected to the massive 'three ugly sisters' scheme at Waterloo, he inexplicably changed his mind and approved it — only to see it rejected as 'fundamentally unacceptable' by the former communities secretary John Denham. And what about the Ealing 'penny whistle' tower that Boris singled out for attack before he was elected? Well, another U-turn made him give it the thumbs up — but only to see that plan also rejected by John Denham, on the grounds that it would have had 'a dominant and overbearing impact' which would damage the area — which is precisely what Boris said back in 2007.

On 1 May 2008 Boris defeated Livingstone by a large margin and he still enjoys personal popularity, but his track record leaves too much to be desired, and Ken Livingstone is already hovering like Banquo's ghost. In the capital, congestion on roads and bridges is set to worsen, while the state of the Tube means that public transport is increasingly a hit-and-miss affair, especially at the weekend. Hundreds of overpaid folk at the Mayor's Transport for London are unable to mitigate the chaos, yet the man officially in charge of it offers little but mumbled apologies.

Boris must accept his organisational and administrative shortcomings and his reliance on key staff. He must therefore replace those who are letting him — and us — down, putting aside misplaced loyalties. He must clarify his priorities and insist that his lieutenants implement his agenda, not their own. If he does, his engaging personality could carry him through the tough economic times which lie ahead. If he fails, a different Mayor could be on the world stage, opening those 2012 Olympics — and a different Conservative PM will reunite the party in the post-Cameron era.
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1 comment:

Kit said...

Sour grapes pretty much completely sums up that article. The fact that the author admits that she might be accused of sour grapes doesn't alter the fact that she is guilty of it.

What a low rent article, i am surprised at the Spectator.

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