The promise Boris must make if he is to become mayor of London
MATTHEW PARRIS Boris Johnson could make a great Conservative candidate for the London mayoralty, and a great mayor of London. But he'll need to get the pitch right. I'm afraid the first thing he'll have to do is steer well clear of The Spectator. This splendid and in the best sense rather exclusive institution is the worst possible base from which to make a serious appeal to the much-put-upon citizens of the metropolis. There's a worrying hint already that we Spectator folk think it's all rather a hoot — Good Old Boris, TallyHo Boris, Stick it up-'em Boris, etc — which is precisely the note his campaign ought to avoid striking.
For if anything is to sink the Johnson candidature, it will be an impression of careless jollity — and he's better than that. Frankly, we at The Spectator would all be doing Boris a favour if we pretended not to support him at all. We should run Tamzin Lightwater; then, finally — when her application is rejected — affect fogeyish surprise that in this age of media constructs and virtual reality the Tory party should still be insisting that a candidate actually exists.
A Conservative bid in London, if it is to succeed, should be distinguished by its earnestness. I was impressed by businessman-and-think-tanker Nick Boles's preparations for a crack at the job (before illness forced him to withdraw) because he had begun making speeches containing facts and figures, sums, financial balances, transport calculations: the sort of hard-edged stuff on which Ken Livingstone goes wobbly. Such an approach should be right at the centre of any Conservative campaign in London and Boris is perfectly well-equipped to get a grip on it, if he can be persuaded to. Those who genuinely wish him well should be encouraging him to do so. The friends he least needs at present are the kind of Tories who start chorusing `bor-ing, bor-ing' when a chap tries to get serious about bus routes.
Be very clear about this: that kind of thing could destroy Boris's chances. One chance remark, one giggle at the expense of somebody being earnest could, with the help of the press and the Labour party, be right across London within an afternoon — and fatal. It may be very public-school, but it isn't clever and it isn't funny to affect disdain for bean-counters, experts and men and women for whom politics and public administration are not amusing pastimes or even ways of doing one's bit for the nation, but the most important thing in the world.
Beneath Londoners' habitual and stoical shrugs, there is a strong undercurrent of feeling in the capital that this city is the source of much of the nation's wealth, a milch-cow, a cultural powerhouse and a huge driving force in the national destiny — that London is, in the modern jargon, the United Kingdom's unique selling point — but that it's been kicked around pretty carelessly by politicians and chancellors of the exchequer for decades, on the unspoken basis that London will always look after itself. London's transport infrastructure is in a mess after decades of underinvestment, and operating quite close to the edge for much of the working weekday. It is a disgrace that Conservative and Labour governments have consistently balked at giving the go-ahead to Crossrail, an expensive but urgently needed project to drive a new eastwest Underground line from (at least) Paddington to Stratford and Canary Wharf. Ken Livingstone has committed himself personally to the project but shrinks from doing what he knows he should: making Crossrail a condition of his standing as the official Labour candidate next time.
There's an opportunity here for Johnson. The Tories at Westminster continue to hum and hah about Crossrail. Boris should pledge that as mayor, if and when a Conservative government took over, he would require their go-ahead for the project, on pain of his resigning the Tory whip. Voters would appreciate a hard promise like that, not least because, for all that his approach to his own party policy has been famously cheeky, he's not known for having taken a brave stand on anything that really mattered.
Boris certainly doesn't lack courage. I've known him, not well, but for many years, and (if I may add to his father Stanley's self-confessedly affectionate estimate on these pages recently), I'd sum it up like this. Cleverer (of course) than he pretends, somewhat less doggedly amiable than he pretends, as learned as he seems, not always as confident as he seems, more easily depressed than he appears, he has a real passion for wronged individuals and the overlooked. He would have been a brave defender of Dreyfus. He can be a good friend in need. However, he sometimes finds arguments in principle, in the abstract, or about ideology rather tiresome. Personally energetic, he can be philosophically lazy. As mayoral candidate, he would need a small, crack team of policypeople and a really tough chief of staff; and he would have to let them run him The public-school jibe could be really damaging. No Etonian should be allowed within five miles of his campaign. Boris is not a snob, Londoners are not inverted snobs, and Johnson could even turn his toffishness to his advantage if the inevitable class-based Labour and Liberal Democrat attacks on him appeared unwarranted; but he must make sure they do appear unwarranted. The Spectator cannot help him here, except by steering clear.
A Tory friend of mine was rather unexpectedly saying, over supper the other evening, that the one thing he admired about the new Prime Minister was he really does try, does struggle, and has been struggling all his life. Gordon Brown gives the impression that this job is everything to him — that it's a huge effort, but the only thing he's ever wanted to do, the thing without which he would count not just his career but his life a failure. He cares so much that he cannot pretend. This earnestness (my public-school friend said) was quite unfamiliar in the circles in which we moved, and wholly admirable.
London doesn't need or want another pearly king. Mr Livingstone, for all his selfadvertisement and eccentricity, is deadly serious, and brave, and Londoners know it. For the Conservative party to calculate that Livingstone's a joker, a celeb, and wins, therefore the Tories need a celebrated joker too to trump him, would be to fall into a terrible trap. To succeed, as he might, Boris Johnson must not play to the gallery, but surprise such expectations in an early and signal way.