JOSH LEE looks into the Marmite figure of today’s political scene.
He described Portsmouth as ‘too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement, and Labour MPS’ and, earlier this year, bluntly told a cab driver to ‘f**k off and die – and not in that order’. Controversy has been a permanent feature of Boris Johnson’s political career. Yet even with these hiccups, the mop-haired Mayor of London has crafted a PR image so genius that he’s consistently depicted as a loveable oaf. His blunders are perfect for Facebook shares; his quotes are retweet-worthy. The media milk it dry, and Evening Standard readers chug it down their throats.
BoJo’s mojo has made many overlook his political weaknesses, demonstrated by the fact that his campaign staff ‘could not recall what had been achieved’ in his first term as mayor. A deeper examination of his professional life is needed in order to unearth the reality behind the Johnson myth.
In both his manifesto and interviews when campaigning for mayoralty, Johnson promised he would ‘work flat-out’ to make the capital ‘the greenest city in the world’, ‘make our streets safer,’ and ‘put the smile back on London’s face’. Whilst no-Jo critics believe that things haven’t panned out exactly as predicted, the pro-Jo brigade say that his time as mayor has been well executed. However, the latter claim lacks qualification.
Boris is most celebrated for developing London’s transport. ‘Boris bikes’ were unlimbered across the capital in 2010. However, the previous Livingston administration had started planning the scheme almost a year before Boris was elected, and TFL has since revealed that only a narrow cross-section of London’s diverse population actually benefit from them, typically ‘white men, aged between 25 and 33, with a higher than average household income.’ Countless voices have labelled Boris’ reintroduction of Routemaster buses as a vanity project. Each bus costs approximately £160,000 more than the ordinary double-decker and that claims that it is ‘the greenest, cleanest’ bus ever made have been proven false. It could be said that Boris’ transport modifications are all slogan, no substance.
Handling race relations has proved no more successful for Boris. His apathetic approach to the 2011 London riots quite clearly demonstrated his limited grasp on the capital’s social tensions. He arrived two days after the event in North London (due to a family holiday in Canada) to be greeted with hostility by a crowd he was addressing in Clapham Junction. He did grab a broom to lead the clean up, but was unable to sweep away the fact that as mayor he lethargically reacted to the worst riots in the UK for thirty years for forty-eight more hours on holiday. BoJo didn’t quite grasp the seriousness of the situation – perhaps further exposing his ignorance of the major problems faced by London’s marginalised communities.
Amid rumours that Johnson will run for PM in 2020, it is difficult to imagine him being more successful in Downing Street than at City Hall. His political flexibility makes it difficult to visualise what plans he would have in mind as PM. In two years he turned 360 degrees on immigration – demanding the cap to be scrapped in 2010, to calling for a ‘tighter grip’ in 2012. Yet Ipsos MORI research concludes that the wider public would vote Conservative in 2020 if the London Mayor were to become party leader, indicating just how deep his myth runs. So what is it that distorts the Johnson reality?
Whereas Ed Miliband – like Boris, the hero of countless ‘memes’ – looked socially awkward in almost all situations during his campaign for PM, Johnson’s ‘blunders’ are pulled off with a poise that belies the clumsy façade. Because his class clown act separates him from the conventional image of stuffy and out-of-touch politicians, he is seen as an alluring and authentic figure. His endless supply of comedic PR stunts also helps to create an insatiable hunger for Boris-related entertainment regardless of his political credentials. Plus, because his current position does not oversee national affairs, he is so often seen as someone who is unthreatening to our wellbeing. He has neither triggered a recession nor involved the UK in a foreign war. It may be to his benefit that he is seen as the ‘Boris bike’ man and not much else.
Upon closer inspection, it seems that not every aspect of his mayoralty has been a disaster. His stint at City Hall London has seen the capital become Europe’s foremost tech hub, for instance. However considering his failure to follow up slogans with significant change, his political achievement seems minimal. Given his shortcomings, one would think that the media would use Boris’ PR stunts to sink him just like they did to the bacon sandwich-wrestling Miliband. Yet the papers love Johnson, and the nation likewise. There’s clearly no zip-wire too high nor dance too complicated, but neither will expose BoJo’s flaws.