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Mayor of the Month for September 2012
Mayor of London
By Andrew Stevens
3 September 2012: London’s resolutely ‘young fogey’ mayor has confounded expectations on his aptitude to govern since his May 2008 election victory. Having gone from a controversy-seeking journalist to national politician in less than a decade, Boris Johnson was always a surprise choice as Conservative candidate for the Labour-leaning British capital’s top job. His record in office has divided commentators however, some applauding his personal brand and humour underlying a solid vision, others accusing him of breath-taking complacency and attention-seeking. Johnson was re-elected for a second term in May 2012 ahead of London’s successful staging of the Summer Olympics, leading many to ponder a return to national politics and higher office for the seasoned performer mayor.
Born 1964 in New York to English parents Stanley Johnson (a former Conservative Member of the European Parliament) and his first wife, the painter Charlotte Wahl, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson moved to England at an early age. He then attended England’s most elite educational institution Eton College, before going up to Oxford’s Balliol College to read Classics. At Oxford he became president of the world famous Oxford Union debating society and a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club dining society, where he met fellow Etonian and future Conservative Party leader David Cameron. Arguably he was set for a career in politics from an early age.
Upon graduation from Oxford in 1986, Johnson embarked on a career in management consultancy, but quit after only one week due to lack of interest. He was then accepted on a traineeship at The Times but dismissed after less than a year for falsifying a quote to spice up a dull story. He was quickly rescued from provincial obscurity on a local evening newspaper by joining the conservative Daily Telegraph as a feature writer in 1987, becoming its Brussels correspondent not long after. Flourishing in his role observing the European Union during the Maastricht Treaty era, he became the paper’s chief political correspondent and was rewarded with a column on the august right-wing weekly The Spectator. He stepped into the magazine’s editor’s chair in 1999 and began to cultivate the media persona which would ultimately lead to election to Parliament, though his first attempt in 1997 for the Labour-held Clywd West seat did not prove successful.
In 1998 Johnson began his longstanding association with the BBC current affairs quiz Have I Got News For You (which would be comparable to The Daily Show in the US), eventually becoming a household name (unusually for a minor Conservative figure) and securing the greatest number of appearances (alongside, ironically, Ken Livingstone). He finally secured election to Parliament as a Conservative MP in 2001, when he replaced Michael Heseltine in Oxfordshire’s Henley-on-Thames seat on the former Deputy Prime Minister’s retirement. Once in Parliament he retained a prolific output and high profile on the right as a broadcaster and journalist, remaining a Telegraph columnist and editor of The Spectator in 2005. Johnson’s first job in opposition was as Shadow Arts Minister in 2004, during which time he also wrote a comic novel. However, he was soon forced to resign from the post that year following tabloid revelations of an extra-marital affair with a fellow Spectator journalist. Equally his tendency towards gaffe-prone behaviour, having offended many with his journalistic outbursts and frequent apologies for doing so, led some to speculate that his dizzying potential had been eroded early in his political career.
Johnson bounced back however, not least once Oxford contemporary David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party late in 2005. Cameron appointed Johnson as the party’s Shadow Higher Education Minister, arguably a minor role considering his high public profile but one probably suited to his expansive portfolio of activities outside of Parliament. Johnson survived a further marital indiscretion with a journalist and only relinquished his party role in 2007 when the contest for the Conservative ticket for the 2008 London mayoral elections commenced. The party had initially delayed its contest when no ‘big hitters’ came forward to take on Labour’s Ken Livingstone, who then looked assured of a third term as mayor. Johnson was drafted in by the party leadership at the last hour, at the suggestion of the London Evening Standard (which later acted as his cheerleader against Livingstone throughout), forcing his three obscure party rivals to go through the motions and make up the numbers in the contest, in which Johnson emerged with 75 per cent of votes cast by Conservatives.
In the event, Johnson began to campaign as something of a slow-burner, with Conservative activists questioning his commitment to the candidacy on account of his various continuing media interests. The Conservative Party played something of an ace card in hiring the combative Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, whose winning streak of victories for Prime Minister John Howard was played out in London, where he concentrated resources in Conservative-leaning outlying suburbs (the so-called ‘doughnut strategy’). This had the effect of seeing Johnson overtake Livingstone, who was likened to a tired two-term mayor of questionable judgement over appointments and use of resources by both the Conservatives and parts of the media, and secure election as the second ever directly elected Mayor of London on May 1 2008 (with 1,168,738 votes as against Livingstone's 1,028,966). He subsequently resigned as an MP to devote himself to the mayoralty (while previously representing an Oxfordshire seat in Parliament he had also remained a resident of London).
Immediately after his election, Johnson sought to enhance his stature (having been accused of inexperience in an executive role) through a partnership agreement signed with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who promised to mentor the new mayor. Throughout the campaign Johnson had made an issue of the alleged lack of financial scrutiny and transparent governance under Livingstone. He reciprocated as mayor in establishing a ‘forensic audit panel’ to examine financial controls and identify cost savings, such as the international office network put in place by Livingstone. He also established a deputy mayor appointment system to place his advisers on a publicly accountable footing after accusations that the former mayor had hired cronies to key posts in which they abused their power over staffing and expenditure. However, many including the London Assembly have criticised the confusion stemming from this arrangement, where staff deputy mayors rank alongside the statutory Deputy Mayor of London (a member of the assembly appointed by Johnson by law). The early months of the mayoralty were beset by resignations by his advisers over controversial remarks, the fabrication of previous employment record and a personality clash with the mayor.
Following his election to a second term and successful staging of the Olympic Games secured by his predecessor, Johnson would probably point to the Paris-style cycle hire scheme (the so-called ‘Boris bikes’) as his signature achievement in office thus far, as well as reforms to the police which seen reductions in some types of crime. If anything, as mayor Johnson has been preoccupied with the public realm, perhaps paying less attention to economic development than his predecessor (aside from defending the City from ‘banker bashing’, which he believes damages London’s economy). Other high profile actions of the mayor include a crackdown on drinking alcohol on public transport (the introduction of which was greeted with a near-riot) and cancelling an anti-racist festival, much to the annoyance of trade unions. Johnson’s mayoralty has also been notable for the recessionary cancellation of many transport projects set in place by his predecessor, ostensibly denying many poorer areas of the capital much needed investment. However, he did dismantle the capital’s ill-fated PPP scheme of part-privatisation of the London Underground.
Inevitably during the summer week of riots in August 2011 contrasts were made with his predecessor’s steady handling of the 2005 London bombings, whereas Johnson was ostensibly caught napping while refusing to cut short his holidays to return to the burning capital. Local residents affected by the looting and chaos initially heckled the mayor as he attempted a walkabout in the city. The mayor’s demands for the Conservative-led coalition government to abandon its plans to cut police numbers in the capital in response to the riots were accused of stage-managed bluster by opponents, pointing to the dispensation given by his party colleagues in UK government who are aware of the mayor’s electoral strategy to distance himself from their actions.
The mayor’s public persona is well-honed and his speeches can be electrifying, even for sceptics. But it was Boris’ deft stewardship of the 2012 Games which saw his star ascend to hitherto unseen levels, justifying the claim of ‘Boris mania’ as even mishaps on zip-wires saw his brand propelled. Unusually for a politician, certainly in the UK, Boris passes both the ‘Madonna test’ (no surname necessary) and the 'Simpsons test’ (recognisable in silhouette alone) and has attained a rockstar-like level of public support, evidenced by crowds chanting his name during the Olympics celebrations. Even at a time when the Conservative brand has regressed back to its unenviable taint of cuts and economic hardship, Boris’ mayoral star and lustre shows little sign of waning. Whether the fleeting euphoria of Games time and the mayor’s popular media stunts can assume their own momentum for a post-mayoral career in national high office remains to be seen however. The mayor himself has certainly sought to pour cold water on the idea through continuous denials that a “prat on a wire” could ever be seen as statesman material. The media however, have their own ideas.
Mayor Johnson is married to Marina Wheeler, a barrister and daughter of the journalist Sir Charles Wheeler, and they have four children, Theodore Apollo, Milo Arthur, Lara Lettice and Cassia Peaches. Johnson was previously married to the socialite Allegra Mostyn-Owen, whom he met at university. Johnson is the author of one novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, an account of his 2001 election campaign Friends, Voters, Countrymen, and three collections of journalism, Johnson's Column, Lend Me Your Ears and Have I Got Views For You. The mayor has been the subject of some criticism for his failure to give up his many media commitments, including his £250,000 a year newspaper column, despite holding public office.
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
1964 Born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, New York
1986 Graduates from Oxford University with degree in classics
1987 Joins Daily Telegraph
1989 Becomes Telegraph's European correspondent
1994 Assistant Editor and Chief Political Correspondent
1995 Becomes political columnist for The Spectator
1997 Unsuccessfully contests Clywd South seat for the Conservatives
1999 Becomes Editor of The Spectator
2001 Elected Conservative Member of Parliament for Henley
2004 Appointed Conservative spokesperson for the arts, later dismissed over affair
2005 Re-elected as MP
2006 Appointed Conservative spokesperson for higher education
2007 Conservative candidate for Mayor of London
2008 Elected Mayor of London
2012 - Re-elected Mayor of London