Boris Johnson says the mayoralty is effectively a monarchy. But is the king doing enough for business?
It’s terribly boring interviewing Boris Johnson. Boris isn’t boring, obviously. He is just like he is on the telly: charismatic, keen to charm, his speech spotted with Borisisms and the occasional reference to ancient history. And his hair flip-flops about like a hay bale housing a teenage romp as we sit in his book-lined office at the “glass gonad”, as he has referred to City Hall.
But it’s boring interviewing him because he rarely makes spectacular slip-ups. He dodges questions, he evades answers, turns questions back on me: “But I’m interested to know if you are opposed to it Sophie”.
The wily ways of a journalist turned politician, eh.
But now Boris is in politics, just how far does he want to take his career?
Boris Johnson: “I am convinced I have more power than any secretary of state”
Boris assures me the mayoralty will be his last major job in politics, but I find that hard to believe. After all, he is quietly one of the most ambitious politicians you’ll come across. He lives that lifestyle of prime ministers: he gets up early after only a few hours’ sleep, and will have been for a jog and read the newspapers by 5:30am. Within the next hour he will have written “a few thousand words” before starting work at 6:30am.
Of course, everyone says Boris wants to be prime minister, even though he has likened his chances of ever getting the job to “a snowball’s chance in Hades”, “finding Elvis on Mars” and “being reincarnated as an olive”.
Does he not think he’s up to the job? “That’s a brilliant question,” he says, smiling, but he won’t answer it. Instead, as I reel off his similes, he tells me that they are “agynata, as in, as features of rhetoric. What we’re doing now is reciting a string of agynata, impossibilities. So it’s: A G U N T, sorry, sorry – A G Y N A T A – agynata.”
“There should be more devolution of taxing in London”
Do I want another one, he asks? No, but here it is anyway. His chances of becoming PM are “as likely as my being decapitated by a frisbee”. I tell him all I want to know is whether he thinks he’s up to the job. “I’m not dodging the question,” he tries, after some more mutterings about agynata. Well, you are.
Johnson certainly seems very happy being mayor. I ask him where he thinks his job ranks among the most powerful politicians in this country. “I can give you a very sincere answer to that. Doing this job I am convinced I have more power, executive authority, ability to change people’s lives directly and get things done fast and in a wonderful way than any secretary of state. Really and truly.
“The constitution of this country is now very peculiar because, in my view, in the mayoralty in London you’ve created the most fantastic job that any politician could want to do. You know, being prime minister obviously you have supreme executive authority – then you’ve got,” he pauses. “Everything is just done through all these departments of state.
“But here the mayoralty is effectively a monarchy.” Which makes Boris king of London. He clearly relishes the responsibility. “You are in charge and it is, um – it’s a wonderful, wonderful job. Most mentally challenging but fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” He goes quiet for a moment.
Johnson thinks the mayoralty could reach further. He tells me “there should be more devolution of taxing in London”, later consolidating the point by saying: “We need more power in London, by the way. One of the things we need for your business and all our businesses is more juice.”
Yet Boris does not seem to have a clear vision of how exactly he would help businesses if he was granted more power as mayor.
Boris on business
What exactly is the mayor’s position on London’s businesses? Most would assume an ardent pro-business stance, true to Toryism. But Boris has to play things a bit more cleverly; come out too pro-business, and he risks isolating the non-business community.
Ken Livingstone is all too quick to remind voters of Boris’ upbringing and education, to paint him as part of the rich elite. By way of example, Livingstone said to me in November that “this is a class-based society, always has been. […] There’s never been such a clear and fast choice for Londoners than an Eton and Oxford guy up against a Tulse Hill comprehensive guy. […] I’m just proud that my donations are coming from ordinary Londoners. His are coming from a small group of rich elite.”
Boris’ campaign donations might come in from the rich, but in times like these, he can’t be seen to be siding with them. At the same time, he has to be careful not to annoy them. Where does this leave him on the issues that matter most to businesspeople?
What, I ask him, has he done and will he do to help London businesses like us here LondonlovesBusiness.com – small, but full of ambition and enterprise? Us SMEs are, after all, the ones that every politician seems to be pinning their hopes on to drag the country out of recession.
“Well… first of all.. we’re going to make sure that London remains the business capital of the world. And to do that you need to keep crime low, you need to make sure people have a secure environment in which to invest. That means you need neighbourhoods which are safe, friendly.
“Police on the streets – we’ve got a thousand more police officers on the streets than there were when I was elected. The crime rate is down by 10 per cent – for people travelling to work in London it’s down 30 per cent. And the second thing you’ve got to make sure it’s a great place to live in, to move around in.”
But these aren’t measures specifically designed to help London businesses. They are generic, please-all achievements and goals.
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Boris has continuously voiced his opposition to the 50p tax rate, saying it is damaging to London’s international competitiveness. That’s all well and good. Alright then, in a world where he had tax-raising powers, what should the top rate of tax be?
“Well, um, you know, I don’t have to, I can’t unfortunately see the Chancellor’s books and I can’t make decisions about, um, total, er, tax policy for the country. That’s not, er” – and so on. Ultimately, of course, he concedes he is “a low tax guy”.
But, of course, Boris must appear to be fair.
So he won’t
be drawn on what tax the richest Londoners should have to pay. “What I will say” – and he says it with slow consideration – “is I don’t think that it’s right that London should be expected to compete forever with other jurisdictions which have lower rates of tax. And Londoners are now paying more in tax than, er, many other parts of the world.” Then he immediately counters himself for the sake of balance with: “But it is also true that in tough times most people would agree that the rich should pay more, and I certainly think the rich should pay their fair share.”
But what is a “fair share”? Therein lies the rub. He is adamant that “by the way, rich people shouldn’t get involved in tax dodging manoeuvres and then attack other people for doing…” he trails off, then almost shouts he is so animated: “I mean what I do think – that’s what I think about that.” Although he hasn’t quite said what he means.
He continues, more chattily now: “I mean it’s all very well – people want to minimise their tax exposure. I suppose they’re legally entitled to do so – I have not done so myself but, er, what they can’t do in my view is then launch, um” – he lingers, either for dramatic effect or to search out the best turn of phrase for this next bit – “tirades, hate-filled tirades against rich bastards, in quotes, and call for bankers to be hung. I don’t see how that benefits anybody.”
So to summarise: The richest Londoners should not have to pay 50p. But they should pay their fair share. But they are legally entitled to minimise their tax exposure, although they shouldn’t tax dodge. But they shouldn’t hypocritically criticise bankers and big companies for tax dodging.
Should big companies be allowed to legally minimise their tax exposure, to legally tax dodge? After all, I remind him, 98 of the FTSE 100 companies have registered tax haven companies. Barclays has 174 firms registered in the Cayman Islands alone. Isn’t one of London’s greatest lures for big business that it has this highly lucrative network of offshore tax havens that can be legally exploited to minimise tax liability?
“If there are – if there are tax loopholes that are unfair and that are, um, allowing business to escape paying the tax that they should pay, then I’m all in favour of closing them down.” But then: “What I’m saying to you, and I really am, what I’m saying to you is that you’ve just got to remember as you do it that there may come a point when you start to drive, uh, those businesses to other jurisdictions.”
Again, he seems to be trying to straddle both sides of the fence. He wants the richest in London to stop tax dodging, but also: “You’ve got to watch out that you don’t kill the goose. London has many, many, uh, 600,000 people who one way or another derive their livelihoods from banking and financial services,” and so on.
“The mayoralty is effectively a monarchy”
Chris Blackhurst wrote of Boris: “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.”
Does Boris think this description of him is fair? Firstly, Blackhurst is a “good man, yes”. Then: “No, I think – I’m very flattered by Chris’ description and one, I, I look – I do – so, um.” He pauses. “There are lots of sides to every question, but I think we’ve taken firm and decisive action in London in cutting stupendous sums of waste from our budgets,” and he launches into more spiel about his achievements in London – increasing police on the streets, reducing crime, reducing waste (that’s more than 250 jobs from City Hall, and in his own words: “2023 desks from TfL, mmm, 23 buildings either sold or otherwise liquidated, 25 per cent of the directors of TfL found other employment, £2bn saved in that budget alone”, and so on).
But I’m left wondering who Boris is fighting for. I ask who the hardest group for him to win over in this election will be, and he says: “My approach is to appeal for the support of all Londoners, which I believe is the right way to do it, and I don’t believe in trying to parcel people up into categories.”
Yet appealing to everyone seems to leave him with unclear principles about how things should be done. If he were granted more power as mayor, would he know where to allocate resource? What battles would he choose? His even-handedness could make him a valuable and diplomatic leader. But it might also leave him aimless, schizophrenic, indecisive.
So what is exactly is Boris trying to achieve? If Boris’ monarchy was expanded, what would his kingdom look like?
One can’t be sure whether Boris is addicted to success, or to the pursuit of making the world a better place. Perhaps it’s both.
There certainly seems to be something of the idealist about him. I ask the mayor, who got a 2:1 in classics from Balliol College, Oxford, which figure from ancient history or mythology he most identifies with. After an “arrgghhh” and a “wowowowowowo”, he points out a bust of Pericles in the far corner of the office, which happens, inexplicably, to be wearing a Stetson. It is the same bust he reputedly kept in his room throughout university.
“He was the guy. I’ll tell you why. When I was very young I read – actually someone read to me – an English translation of his funeral speech, where he describes Athens as the greatest city on earth.” He makes a minor detour to the school of Hellas before continuing: “[Pericles] explains that Athens is a society that is built on merit.
“People don’t rise because of their family, or because of their wealth, but because of what they can offer their society. And it’s absolutely… honestly, Obama could make that speech now and people would say he was a genius. It is, it is, um,” – he is solemn – “it is worth reading. And I suppose I’ve always had a sort of reverence for him.”
(That said, he also concedes that Pericles had a mistress – I’m not saying anything – and that “plenty of other people” thought he was a tyrant who “bribed people with their own money”.)
You can understand his passion for meritocracy as a concept. The spoon in Boris’ mouth upon birth was silver-plated – his family weren’t fantastically wealthy, as some assume. He got into Eton on a scholarship, and won a scholarship to Oxford too, where he became president of the Union.
Back in 2012, Boris was asked to define “Johnson Conservatism”. He answered: “It’s founded on the belief that you can’t have wealth creation without social mission. And you can’t have a social mission without wealth creation.”
If he’s faking it, he gives a good semblance of wanting to make the world a better place. Boris says he made the move from journalism to politics because of “a sense of mild moral self-reproach […] I was continually beating people up without leading with my own chin.”
Now he is leading with his own chin, he is clearly determined to succeed, and at least trying to be fair. But does his diplomacy, his keenness to sit o
n both sides of every fence, make him the person you want to represent you?
We’ll find out in May.
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