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July 23, 2007

What Boris must do if he is to beat Ken Livingstone: Harry Phibbs offers some advice to Boris Johnson

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Journalist and Conservative councillor Harry Phibbs offers some advice to Boris Johnson. The views expressed here are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

Boris Johnson's candidature for Mayor of London has provoked the wave of frenzied excitement associated in the past with a rock star taking off his clothes or, in modern times, a celebrity chef opening a new restaurant.

The post of Mayor of London is just a perfect fit for him. Johnson is staunchly partisan and will relish being the Conservative candidate. Yet he also transparently says what he believes rather than reading off some Party handout. He will effortlessly sweep aside his rivals for the Conservative nomination - his core supporters who read his articles in the Daily Telegraph often happen to be paid up members of the Tory Party. When his candidature was officially announced and his website established, supporters signed up offering assistance at the rate of 100 an hour.

They were not just party members, or celebrity worshippers but those who have felt oppressed and ashamed of Ken Livingstone as their Mayor and excited by the opportunity of such a magnificent alternative. The Spectator have swung behind the campaign of their old editor but it is not just the fogeys, enthused by Johnson's knowledge of Latin, swinging behind the campaign. It is also students and teenagers who have marvelled at his TV appearances on such programmes as Have I Got News for You? These are the Facebook generation who, by the thousand, had signed up on Facebook sites supporting Boris before the campaign even existed.

Londoners sense this is a man on their side. That even as Mayor of London he will be fearless in demanding common sense, plain speaking and individual liberty while his rivals would be at best cowed, or at worst lovingly embrace, the bureaucratic regimentation which has become regarded as inevitable.

This is a man of courage. Not some snivelling politician who bottled the chance to stand - like Michael Portillo against John Major in 1995, or Gordon Brown against Tony Blair in 1994 - then having bottled out spent subsequent years sniping.

Boris grasps the sense of destiny and duty. The particular importance to the Conservatives of winning in London is that it could be a springboard to winning in the country as a whole at the next General Election. This is the aspect that those prominent potential candidates who have shied away from putting in their nominations have disregarded. What does it matter if a Tory MP is a junior opposition spokesman or a Shadow Cabinet member? The point is to gain power and to unburden the downtrodden people of Britain. Johnson could have been self absorbed with the minutia of his shadow ministerial career, risk aversely tootling along with his effortless celebrity income of TV appearances and after dinner speeches.

But no. Announcing his candidacy in an article for the Evening Standard he wrote:

I will be running against the strong advice of those who say I would be better off writing books, and going on television, and that I risk throwing away what remains of my political career; and though there have been literally hundreds of people who have urged me to run, I have found myself brooding - like all paranoid politicians - on the negative voices, the people who say that the great King Newt is too dug in, that his positions are impregnable, his machine too vast and well-oiled.

And having weighed up their warnings, over the last week, I say phooey.

Harold Wilson smoked a pipe (at least in public, in private he apparently enjoyed cigars), Ted Heath had a yacht. Margaret Thatcher a handbag. For Johnson the bicycle will be his defining prop - even more than it is for his leader David Cameron.

Boris is clearly hoping even cyclists who don't normally vote Tory will turn out for him. Earlier this year Johnson spoke at the AGM of the Islington branch of the London Cycling Campaign. The group says that:

He [Boris Johnson] treated over 80 people to his whimsical thoughts on cycling policy.
I wasn't in the audience but I think the calls for "seriousness" should not mean deference to a whole lot of official jargon.

Some will advise him to ration his media appearances in order to deal with the doubts about his seriousness. This is quite wrong. What is needed is a very busy schedule of highly localised appearances throughout the thirty-two London Boroughs, set up in coordination with Tory councillors (in the Boroughs where they exist). Readers of local newspapers in London need to understand that Boris has taken the trouble to visit their local area and find out about the particular issues they are concerned about.

The enthusiasm for Boris in cyberland needs to be much more fully exploited. The website should have far more material. At present there is no photogallery. No messages with endorsements. No archive of relevant articles written by Johnson. Those who sign up as supporters should get an automatic acknowledgement. There should be a range of official Boris for Mayor merchandise available - both to spread the word and to be sold to raise funds. There needs to be a greater sense of urgency to get on with all this rather than waiting until Boris is officially adopted.

In terms of policies there needs to be a really tough pledge to cut the Mayor's 300 a year Council tax precept. This needs to be backed up with detail. We need a firm pledge not merely to promise to trim City Hall bureaucracy but to slash it. What about a pledge to cut City Hall staffing levels back to what they were in 2000 when this caper started? Labour promised we wouldn't get a Mark II GLC but that is what is being created.

Already Ken Livingstone has wobbled on his deranged plans for an Uxbridge Road tram. Johnson needs to make clear he would scrap it. There should be a clear message that the love affair with the tower block under Ken Livingstone will end. London's skyline has suffered enough.

What about scrapping the bus monopoly? A return to the Routemaster? Johnson has already denounced the bendy buses. What about selling shares in the tube and spending the capital raised on air conditioning? What about helping to get rid of humps as the emergency services the Mayor is responsible for have requested?

What about an enterprising approach to the River Thames so that more Londoners travel by boat? On crime what about backing the zero tolerance experiment being adopted in Hammersmith and Fulham? Promoting competitive sport should be a Johnson crusade.

What is Boris going to do about Trafalgar Square over which he will have jurisdiction? What will go on the fourth plinth? None of this demand for policy means that Johnson needs to get drawn into all the technical minutia. Ken Livingstone clearly hasn't and frequently gets away with winging it. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without losing sleep or missing out on seeing his favourite films.

Johnson will need to recruit the right people to help him. In February last year Bill Bratton, the former head of the New York Police Department came to visit London. Boris should persuade him to come and stay and set up the sort of zero tolerance policing which achieved a fall in crime of two thirds in New York over a decade.

On transport Professor John Hibbs might help sort out the buses, Ken Irvine the tube. When it comes to the green agenda Boris has a head start - he can ask his environmentalist father Stanley for the odd tip. Stanley might even give advice for free.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and a Conservative Councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.

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What about convicted fraudster Darius Guppy? What is his advice for Mr. Johnson? I mean, how badly does he want to beat Livingstone up... not that it's a disgrace or anything that Boris Johnson would even be considered for the Conservative nomination.

Posted by: James Wright at July 24, 2007 05:51 AM

If the spending on the core GLA and City Hall were cut, not to 2000 levels but to zero, the precept would decrease from 303.88 at band D to 291.41. This is a cut of not quite 12.50 per year, or 24p per week. The vast majority of the GLA budget is spent on the Metropolitan Police and the GLA core services are almost nothing.

Look it up yourself at

Posted by: David Boothroyd at August 1, 2007 09:50 AM

Livingstone has increased the Council Tax precept from 123 when he came in, to over 300 now.
Of course they can present the accounts anyway they like in terms of what is included as "core services." For instance there is over 5 million a year on Communications which includes 250,000 supposedly from the policing budget.

Posted by: Harry Phibbs at August 1, 2007 01:16 PM

5m a year off the GLA budget = 50p a year off the precept. You want cuts of hundreds of pounds, you tell us where they're coming from.

Posted by: David Boothroyd at August 2, 2007 11:07 AM
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