The MT Interview: Boris Johnson

Beneath the buffoonery and scholarly turn of phrase is a highly intelligent, fiercely ambitious politician. But will his upper class twit image deny him a shot at the greatest prize of all - the keys to Number 10?

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What does it mean to be Mayor of London? On my way to see Boris Johnson, it occurs to me that we have precious little idea of what the job entails.

We know Boris, of course we do. As we knew Ken Livingstone before him. They are both instantly recognisable, celebrities, maverick politicians who their own parties find hard to govern. Good for a laugh, they are just as likely to pop up on Have I Got News for You as to be seen delivering a heavyweight speech.

We're actually more aware of what the Queen and the prime minister do than the mayor, and City Hall is a bit of a mystery to most Londoners.

As I approach the curved, squat structure - likened to a 'glass gonad' by its blond-haired occupant - coffee and sandwich bars are doing a brisk trade. This district is home to City firms that have come south of the river for more and cheaper space.

In the reception of City Hall, in contrast to the grey suits outside, there are dozens of children in garish T-shirts emblazoned with the Save the Children logo - the charity is having a schools event. This is the first indication of what life must be like for the mayor - every day is a round of meeting and greeting, he and his office a magnet for bodies from the capital and elsewhere.

On the eighth floor, the mayor's quarters, all is calm. Glass doors bar the uninvited. Two secretaries type away, an assistant is going through an on-screen diary. Johnson is upstairs finishing a TV interview.

The overriding sense is of someone who is in constant demand. London isn't only the capital of the UK, home to eight million inhabitants in the inner area and 14 million in the greater metropolis. It's a world city and leading financial centre, chosen by over 100 of Europe's 500 largest companies as the location of their head offices. London has got the highest GDP of any city in Europe.

It's the most visited city in the world. Its air space is the busiest of any urban area. It has got 43 universities and degree-awarding colleges - London has more students than anywhere in Europe. In 2012, London will become the first city in the world to host the modern Olympic Games three times.

Johnson is coming down the staircase, officials in tow. His famous blond mop of hair has been shorn. It gives him a more disciplined, less casual look. He's 46 years old and powerfully built - you could easily imagine him lobbing hay bales onto a wagon.

We go into his room and he flops down. One wall is covered in book shelves. The volumes range across a wide spectrum - history, political biography and novels. There are photographs and memorabilia collected from his travels. Pride of place is given to a 'Boris bike', one of the Canadian-built machines from his successful bicycle-borrowing service.

On the table in front of him are some briefing notes. He glances at them and pushes them to one side. I don't know how you do it, I say, I don't know how you can be expected to have oversight of a city such as London. What's your management style?

He runs his fingers though his hair and laughs. He tries to seem tough, setting his jaw and frowning. 'I'm as hard as nails,' he booms. 'I'm the Lee Iacocca of London government! I walk around this place. I creep up behind people in my rubber shoes, I steal into their offices and peer over their shoulders. If they're playing Sudoku I stick a self-propelling pencil into their ears. They stop playing after that!'

'Seriously,' he says, lowering his voice, 'I have a good team working with me. Each of them has a defined brief. I believe in giving them all ownership of something.' He bangs the table, smiling. And raises the volume again. 'And, by God, they've got to deliver!'

Is his approach more divide and rule, then? 'Not really. They're all very able, all nice, all good people who want to do their best for London. They feel very strongly that they do not want to let the city down.'

Johnson pauses. 'And I've got the great Sir Simon Milton as chief of staff - Simon is the former leader of Westminster City Council, he knows just about all there is to know about London governance. He's a first-rate operator.'

Boris is earnest. 'Doing this job is like being in central government,' he says. 'It's not true what ministers say about civil servants. They're always moaning about them and blaming them. But the reality is officials are very talented and very hard-working. It's the same here - plenty of the officials have stayed all the way through. They love this city, they want to give their best.'

The desire to perform is never far below the surface with Johnson. Blessed with enormous personal confidence and a formidable, capacious mind (he won scholarships to Eton and Oxford), he's a born wit and entertainer. Phrases in Greek, French and Latin pepper his conversation.

In some circles he's regarded as an upper class buffoon, forever associated with famous utterances like 'wiff waff is coming home' in relation to table-tennis at a formal party to mark the passing of the Olympic baton from Beijing to London in 2008. It's true, he speaks as he finds, and while that can sometimes leave others gasping and giggling, he can be spot on in his bald assessments - even if he has drawn upon an episode from classical Greek or Roman literature to make them.

Strip away the blond thatch, the ruddy, cheery disposition and there is a deeply serious person wishing to be acknowledged. And a hugely ambitious one - he's made no secret of wanting to be prime minister one day.

Apart from one week working as a trainee management consultant for LEK Partnership - 'try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix and stay conscious', his entire career has been spent in journalism, as a writer and commentator, and in politics.

Yet we expect him to manage the government of London. Since taking over from Livingstone in 2008, he's reduced the City Hall head count 'from about 600 to 350'. That must have been tough? He nods. 'I'm very squeamish and I have a tendency to put myself inside the head of others, to think what they must be thinking.'

His approach is one of 'persuasion and uplift'. He slaps the table, beaming. 'There's no culture of terror here!' (The 250 unfortunate souls who received the Boris bullet might view things slightly differently.)

He is, he admits, extremely busy. 'I read all my stuff. That over there,' he says, pointing to a scruffy cycle rucksack, 'is my mayoral "red box". I carry it on my bike and read it when I get home. And I get up very early. I go for a run slowly, along the canal, then I have a quick skid through the newspapers. By now, it's 5.30am. I write a few thousand words and I study some Aristotle. It's 6.30 and I turn to the files.'

He's serious again. 'I look at all my speeches for the day. They're all blocked out. Everything in my diary is colour coded - green says it's an ordinary meeting, red means I'm performing. I usually make two or three speeches a day - my diary is full of big red blocks.' Contrary to rumour, he does not turn up unprepared and fire off the cuff. 'I like to have an idea of what I'm going to say. I do my thinking on the bike on my way in.' (He lives in Islington, north London.)

Of late, he has been giving much thought to the London economy. 'My job is to create the conditions in which business can flourish. We can't make a flower grow by pulling on it. It's not my function to identify which start-ups are going to be the Google, Microsoft or Dyson of tomorrow. My job is to get people to work on time, as quickly as they need in order to do their jobs, to keep the streets clean and safe, and to provide enough affordable housing. We have to build a platform of good, reliable public services, particularly transport, which enables the private sector to deliver the wealth for the poor and needy.'

There's a clarity and order here that, again, the public Johnson persona sometimes masks. 'The everyday issues I'm concerned with are quality of life, youth opportunities and fighting crime. Are we getting the most from our officials? That's our priority, to deliver as much as we can every day. That's what I do every day.'

Recently, he's had to defend London against public spending cuts. 'I've worked to protect London's settlement (the grant from central government) as far as we can. It's been successful, so we've preserved Crossrail, the Tube upgrades, train services and concessions. The last is important - we need those concessionary fares in London because the cost of living in London is so great and the gap between rich and poor is enormous.'

Both rich and poor alike suffer from London's creaking transport infrastructure. Decades of under-investment have left the Tube in particular in a bad way. If, as planned, a full weekend service runs on the underground on Saturday 21 July 2012, there will have been a gap of just under five years since the whole network functioned on a Saturday and Sunday. Trying to modernise it while taking on a group of seriously stroppy transport unions is a mighty task. Johnson has done his bit, trading blows with Bob Crow, but there's a long way to go, with pain at every stop.

On the roads, there was a point early last year when Johnson allowed four Thames bridges and one tunnel to be closed or partially closed at the same time. Traffic chaos ensued. Boris bikes aside, London is an old city with an elderly and disorderly transport structure.

London, believes Johnson, 'has a lot to be said for it. We're in the top right-hand quartile of the profit growth matrix (the same one he hated so passionately while at LEK - so clearly that brief experience was not entirely wasted). We've got a young, increasingly skilled population, which puts London in better shape than most European capitals.'

The city has an awful lot going for it, he stresses. 'We're in the right time zone, between Asia and America, the global language of business is our language and, despite the recession, we've maintained our investment in transport. We understand the needs of the people who work here. Our aim is to deliver growth for the city - in 2012, the national and international interest in London will be extraordinary. It's growing already.'

While the chance to host the Olympics was won on Livingstone's watch, Johnson is a fierce advocate of the games. 'You only have to see how the Olympics have driven the construction industry. Fighting to bring them here was absolutely the right thing to do. They're fantastic, they're the most exciting thing any of us will ever get involved in.'

He does not see 2012 as just a two-week sport fest. 'We have to use the games to deliver lasting change. It's not just about the East End - I want the legacy to go across the city. We're working on Oxford Circus and Exhibition Road (by the museums in South Kensington) to make them more attractive for people on foot - and there will be more. If it looks good, it feels good - it's an environmentally driven commercial opportunity. Every day, I'm driven by that - how to make this city look better. We want to make London the most positive, complete, attractive city to live in and invest in. There are things we still have to get right. Long-term, it is not right that an entrepreneurial city such as London should have a top tax rate higher than most of its competitors. Our 50p rate is higher than in Germany, France, the US, Switzerland, China... it's a long list. We've got to get a commitment that it will come down.'

Inevitably, remarks like that bring him into conflict with colleagues at Westminster. 'London is a source of tension between politicians, but we can't forget the community which we serve and in which we live. We have a duty to that community.'

He thinks bankers should be seen to put more into the city and has criticised them, saying: 'Those distinguished, intelligent, highly remunerated people have got to understand the political consequences of doing nothing about huge bonuses.'

He acknowledges: 'They've got to be more visible.' But to bankers' critics, he is equally forthright. 'To the banker bashers, I say, what's your ideal economic model? We can't ignore and hate the bankers. What would that achieve? Show me how reducing financial services boosts manufacturing.'

Adds Johnson: 'London attracts the brightest people from around the globe - it serves the global economy. It's one of the best places in the world in which to raise money. Why should harming that provide a boost to other parts of the economy?'

He says he's 'not convinced by banker-bashing. I can understand the comments that are made and the rage. But we're also asking them to contribute £31bn in tax - that's how much the City contributes to the Treasury each year. Part of my role is to fight for the neediest and the poorest, but I also understand it's not served by just beating up some banker tossers.'

This ambivalence towards miscreant banks demonstrates perfectly how he can struggle as an effective politician - he is bright enough to see both sides of most arguments. The true politician rarely does, because that involves too complex a message to communicate. And 'the wise guy playing the fool to win' is smart enough to know it.

Does he think the anti-City sentiment has gone so far as to cause permanent damage? He shakes his head. 'I'm an optimist. We've got a very low crime rate, we've got huge amounts of green space, the cultural life of London is second to none on this planet. It's not so much people leaving - they're not taking their kids out of school and going to Zug - but it's firms thinking where to open an office next. Should it be Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai or London? People respond to hostile signals. Our message should be that we're open for talent from all over the world.'

He continues: 'We must be balanced. I don't see an exodus. George (Osborne) has a got a very difficult balance to strike. His instincts are in the right place. He's got a massive fiscal problem to solve and he's got to do it in a way that is socially just. But we've also got to remember that London is the financial capital of the world - you can't be the financial capital with a top rate that is not the same as that of your competitors.'

A Johnson pet project is the new fourth major airport that he would like to build in the east, out towards the Thames estuary. He's clear why. 'The one thing that comes top of our business surveys of wish-lists is aviation. I respect people who don't want more flights overhead. The basic problem is that Heathrow is in the wrong place. We need a hub airport, but politically and realistically it can't be achieved by expanding Heathrow.'

In the future, 'we will get cleaner, greener planes but we can't have them circling over London causing greater noise to the population'. His proposal is to stack them up over the sea.

A greater and more pressing concern for London, and the UK's economic prosperity as well, he argues, is education. 'Too many of our kids have inadequate literacy and numeracy. They slip behind and they never get back, they never catch up. We've put a lot of effort into this but we're still not at the level we should be - it's far more important than a new airport.'

He looks pensive. 'I'm going to take a more vigorous lead on that. We've got to give our people the right skills.' Part of that policy includes 'a big push on apprentices'. Last year, there were 16,000 apprenticeships in the London area: by the end of October 2011, that is due to increase to 25,000.

Overall, he says the future is bright for London. 'This city has an incredibly diverse economy. Financial services only accounts for 9% of the local economy. Part of London's resilience is its world-beating position in other areas - we've got SMEs galore, we're top in creative industries, we're the tourism capital of the world - New York might have more tourists, but that's because a lot of them are Americans; we have more international tourists. We have more orchestras than New York, more museums than Paris. The most visited modern art gallery in the world is the Tate Modern. We've got the most popular music venue in the world at the O2 Arena. We're the digital capital of the world - the MD of Google has said that people here spend more time online than in New York. We lead in bio-tech - GlaxoSmithKline is located here...' Phew. He tails off.

'Why do we need to rebalance London's economy? Financial services grew because we were very successful at them. Are we now going to build factories around London that nobody wants? Why squash down financial services? Surely it's far better to help all sectors thrive and that includes financial services. '

It's obvious what Johnson thinks the answer should be. Gone is the jokey character. This is big-time realpolitik. As if to emphasise that, there's a knock at the door. Johnson's next meeting has arrived. It's Paul Deighton (ex Goldman Sachs), CEO of the organising committee of London 2012, and a team from the Games organisers. Johnson roars a friendly greeting.

He's a slightly strange leader to have for the nation's capital during an era of grey austerity. But in times when people need their spirits lifting, he's far better at raising downcast heads than, say, George Osborne or Vince Cable. Boris brings colour and warmth. People like him. How much further could he go? Could he speak for the post-industrial north and the Midlands? Might his saucily colourful private life bar further advancement? How would he play on the international stage to a bemused audience who don't quite get him? Let's see.

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING JOHNSON

- To win a second term as mayor

- To ensure the 2012 Olympics are a triumph and that the site of the games does not become a white elephant

- To maintain London's hegemony as a financial centre, avoid an exodus of bankers and continue to attract investment

- To narrow the gap between London's rich and poor. To increase the amount of social housing so that public sector workers, such as nurses, teachers, firemen and police officers, can afford to live in London

JOHNSON IN A MINUTE

1964: Born to Stanley Johnson, who was a Tory MEP in the 1980s, and Charlotte, a painter. The eldest of four children (sister Rachel is editor of The Lady, brother Jo is a senior journalist on the Financial Times and brother Leo is an entrepreneur)

1987: After a brilliant school and university career at Eton and Oxford (president of the Union), goes into management consultancy, lasts one week, and switches to journalism

1988: Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, moves up to chief political columnist

1999: Editor of The Spectator

2001: Elected Conservative MP for Henley, succeeding Michael Heseltine

2005: Shadow minister for higher education, appointed by David Cameron

2008: Elected Mayor of London

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