“Well I uh I uh I think I should go…”
“Mr Johnson sit down and answer one more question”
“Uh well okay”
The session at a Commons committee hearing was priceless. Boris Johnson, the Beano character who became Lord Mayor of London had been questioned for more than an hour about the debacle of snow day in London, when public transport ground to a halt across the city, for the first time ever.
As numerous commentators noted at the time, not even the Blitz interrupted bus services in the capital (one of the iconic photos from that period is of a milkman delivering to houses that no longer exist). No-one expected full service, but subsequent investigations had revealed that Johnson had slept through a late night message from transport chiefs asking for an executive decision and had never really taken charge the next morning.
Throughout the hearing the lack of leadership was laid out more fully as Boris huffed and puffed and, when he rose to leave — shirt out the back of his suit, clutching at a backpack and bicycle helmet — the transformation to naughty schoolboy was complete. Having perfected the “look I, I, I, yknow I mean, gosh” act for years, his quite accurate charge — that the committee was a Labour stack, giving him a slow spit-roasting — sounded merely petulant and sulky.
Like all good political roastings, this one was damaging because true. The snow had already started the previous evening. Any real leader would have been up all night, would have relished the challenge of keeping the city going. Global media had a good laugh at one of the world’s greatest cities being ground to a halt by a relatively small amount of snow, but with only one of these every decade, investment in snow ploughs, special tyres etc simply isn’t worth it. Which means the onus falls on the mayor to find crafty ways to keep things going.
The first mayor of London Ken Livingstone, 2000-08, would have been out there pushing the buses down Edgeware Road personally. Not because he is necessarily the grit-salt of humanity — he’s a sneaky little spiv, who should have kept that pencil moustache he used to sport — but because he simply loves to run London, eats, drinks and sleeps it, and has for thirty years, in and out of power. Boris, having run for the gig as a fantastic wheeze with all sorts of ideas, appears to be getting tired of it already.
That was always going to be the risk with BJ, as felicitous a set of initials since the US right got a few giggles out of Barack Obama. Johnson is a stylish writer, a man of moderate intelligence — who makes himself look smarter than he is by appearing stupider — and with the attention-span of a halibut. He was a chaotic reporter, an absentee editor of The Spectator (which was put together by the deputy Stuart Reid), a dilettante shadow minister, a sluggish local member (Henley-on-Thames), and, as is the birthright of Etonian-Oxbridgians — published a bad novel and made a couple of so-so TV documentaries.
Livingstone didn’t take him seriously as a contender — nor did most of us, including David Cameron, whose one goal was to deny the Tory candidacy to Jeffrey Archer, which would have been enough to sink a 2009/10 Tory challenge all by itself.
But we had all underestimated the degree to which Livingstone had managed to p-ss off both key sections of middle London and the activist left which had formed his base. Livingstone had always made a speciality of dancing expertly between coalitions, always keeping them on the edge of quitting him.
Having got in when Labour dumped him in the 90s, on the strength of the socialist alliance base, Livingstone turned around and became a business boosterist Mayor of the old school, spruiking the idea that London would be a city of skyscrapers and riding roughshod over any notion of community input into planning. Thus p-ssing off the left, he queered his pitch with the right, overextending the congestion charge — the fee you pay to take a car into central London — way into Kensington and Chelsea, and then differentially priced it, so that a Thameside Tractor (a Range Rover that has never seen mud)* would cost up to £20 a day to take out of the garage. Though he kept a lid on really wacky grants, he spread a lot of money around, the most public being a big global anti-racism festival with the guest of honour being Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
And then there were the Routemasters — the double-decker open-backed buses that, for many people, are London.
“Only a heartless bastard would abolish the Routemaster,” Ken had said before the election to a second term, in response to the push by transport engineers (bloodless technocrats the world over) to get rid of the model, which are smaller than newer models on the market.
A year after the election the Routemasters were gone, replaced by plasticky soulless double-deckers and — horror of horrors — single-decker “bendy” buses, which were as un-London as a post-pub kebab that doesn’t sweat more than you do as you eat it.
This really p-ssed off Ken’s third force, the small but active “Londonists” — duffel-coated, real ale types, who take walking tours of Hawksmoor church ley lines (they are arranged as a pentagram) and disused Tube stations and follow JG Ballard in thinking of the Westway concrete overpass (of Clash song fame) as the city’s crowning architectural achievement.
There’s probably only ten thousand of us — yes, I am one of their number, navigate the city with a facsimile edition of the 1930 A-Z, refer to Green Park Tube station as Dover St, which it has not been for seventy years — but we get out the vote and Boris scooped up many with a promise to restore the Routemaster, among other public transport initiatives. Yes, really, an old red bus was a factor.
The election itself was, in microcosm, an expression of the weird way in which Labour and Tory, Left and Right, had become disengaged couplings — they didn’t match onto each other. Boris had become the champion of a Living London — of people who wanted improvement without mass demolition, or the inecessant injunction that “we can’t be nostalgic”. London ain’t Dubai — it has nothing but nostalgia, a city whose layered associations and ways of living make irrelevant all the bad stuff — the weather, food, housing, rudeness, decay, the prices, licensing laws, gosh there’s a lot, the simple inability to install a working shower unit, Australians en route to Oktoberfest, eight pounds for a railway station lockers, etc.
Livingstone had assumed he could do just about anything and retain his base, as the Tories would always be seen as the Thatcherite horde. But Johnson pitched himself — and to some extent has delivered upon — the idea of being a conservative Green mayor, leaving Livingstone on his right in many aspects. London is still a left-wing city.
The problem for Boris is that the GFC has put the kybosh on many of the plans — mainly public transport — that would have put his stamp on the place. Quick schemes like a new Routemaster, new tram schemes etc are now on hold indefinitely. For those on the Right who grouch about the “nanny state” like they didn’t start it, Boris’s first act — banning drinking alcohol on trains and buses — was a classic piece of Scandinavian sensibleness.
The mayor’s job is one of those things you’ve got to love for, not despite, the drudgery of it. For Boris, fading attention is fatal, since his predecessor’s second term was gained on the base that — no matter how much people hated him — they knew that the city was his life’s work. If Boris gives people the impression it’s not even his day job, then the city will turn again to Ken Whittington, once, twice, thrice Lord Mayor of London, relentless as a vindalu, dependable as the 38.**
*the usual term is Chelsea Tractor. My version — adopted by no-one else — preserves the pleasing alliteration of Toorak Tractor.
**Victoria-Clapton Pond, via Hackney, connects to the 73 at Islington for Stoke Newington.