By Andrew Gimson
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Before I could put a single question to Boris Johnson, he launched into an ebullient account of the political situation: “We are now neck and neck with Labour with 18 months to go. The economy turning round. Ship off the rocks.”
The Mayor of London’s favourite new metaphor is the Costa Concordia. It possesses the Johnsonian characteristics of being dramatic, popular, original, amusing and in questionable taste. A more pedantic objection occurred to me: “It’s a powerful image but the ship isn’t actually moving.”
Johnson admitted that when the new metaphor was launched by him in a speech to the Institute of Directors, it attracted a certain amount of criticism: “My Costa Concordia point didn’t go down well with everyone.”
But he was not prepared to abandon the image just because a few rather touchy people claimed to be offended. That if anything made the metaphor more attractive to him.
Half-way through the interview, while explaining how to get people to vote Conservative, he reverted to it: “I think in the end, I think my Costa Concordia point was good. They [the voters] will not want to have the same people back on the bridge who ran the boat aground.”
To liken the Labour leadership to an Italian captain who steered onto the the rocks, abandoned ship and left 32 of his passengers to perish is unkind. But Johnson is clearly itching to tell the British people that to put Labour back in charge would be madness.
Johnson [in mock American accent]: “I will be privileged to serve...in any capacity. [reverting to an English accent] The fact is, genuinely, I do not want another Labour government while I’m mayor or indeed for the forseeable future, I think they would take us in completely the wrong direction… It’s the pointless negativity that I dislike about Labour. That was where I think Ken Livingstone went wrong. He was always trying to divide and beat up on some group or other. I never liked that.”
ConHome: “Is there any point in any Tory association asking you if you’re interested in standing in 2015?”
Johnson: “My job is to serve the people of London, and to defeat Balls and Miliband at the next election.”
ConHome: “One has the impression you’re very much in loyalty mode.”
Johnson: “When have I ever been in anything else?”
ConHome: “Well there was a slight wobble about school food in the middle of this week.”
Johnson: “My line on school food is, everyone in the office says I’m completely crazy about this, but what I would love is a return to the blissful days which I remember from Primrose Hill Primary School when everyone ate together and it was jolly nutritious and that was it….What Michael Gove is trying to do is absolutely fantastic and he’s brilliantly supported by this operation that Henry Dimbleby is leading…the Gover is finally grappling with this subject and he’s doing brilliantly.”
For ease of reference, I have grouped the rest of Johnson’s remarks under the following headings: UKIP, Tax cuts, Plebgate, the Tories and human nature, London and inequality, London and the housing crisis.
ConHome: “Do you go along with the idea that UKIP are the lost Tory tribe?”
Johnson: “Well I think a lot of UKIP members probably are like that actually. A lot of UKIP members are Tories who feel that the party no longer speaks for them, or to them, I think that probably is true, but the point to make to them is well look, you know, I certainly understand how you feel about the EU and so on, but in the end, the logic of voting for UKIP is that you will bring Ed Miliband and Ed Balls into government, and they won’t even offer a referendum, and I don’t see where that gets us.”
ConHome: “Nigel Farage, born on 3 April 1964, is only a couple of months older than you, born on 19 June 1964, and he is one of the select band of British politicians who actually cheer people up.”
Johnson: “Yes, I like Farage. I got a very nice letter from his wife, inviting me to give a speech to introduce their party conference.”
ConHome: “You declined the honour?”
Johnson: “I told them I thought Ukip could rub along without me.”
ConHome: “Do you think tax cuts should be part of the Tory programme next time round?”
Johnson: “I think it is very difficult at the moment and I understand why George is hesitant about this. But it is still the case that our tax rates, our personal tax rates are still higher than Germany or France or Italy. I think if you include other indirect taxes UK tax is starting to come down a bit by European comparisons and that’s a healthy thing. You’ve got to be tax competitive. But it is difficult, there is no question at a time when real incomes have been falling, when people have really been feeling the squeeze, when cost of living has been going up, it’s very hard to see deep tax cuts, that is politically a tough sell, all I’m saying is that a great city like London can’t always be behind other jurisdictions.”
ConHome: “Reducing the top rate of tax from 50 to 45 per cent did cause an awful lot of political trouble, and it seems a pity they didn’t go to 40 per cent.”
Johnson: “Yuh, why not, I mean I agree, I agree, and I think a lot of people would agree with you.”
ConHome: “But they can’t do it now?”
Johnson: “I would [do it now], but you’d have to look at the Treasury’s curves which predict how much they will take at any tax rate. I think we should bring ourselves in line with our major competitors.”
ConHome asked the Mayor if he agrees with the many eminent people who have complained that Operation Alice, the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into Andrew Mitchell’s altercation with police officers at the Downing Street gates, is taking far too long.
Johnson: “This is a very serious point and obviously I have no operational jurisdiction. But what I can tell you is that this is a decision for the CPS, and I think that a lot of the comment and the criticism is a little bit mis-targeted and off target at the moment, because the CPS have to make up their minds about what exactly to do. They have as I understand it a huge amount of evidence, but I think the problem is they are still receiving fresh evidence and fresh testimony of a kind that could not have been expected, and that is my understanding of what is holding things up, and I know people are impatient…I think to blame the Met is just a little bit unfair. It’s between the CPS and the Met and collectively they’ve got to sort it out as fast as possible.”
The Tories and human nature
Johnson: “In the end human nature responds better to being given opportunities to better themselves than to opportunities to bash other people and to try to pull other people down. That’s what Toryism should be about, it should be about giving people opportunity and giving people hope. Tories have won in the past hugely when we’ve built enough homes for hard-working and aspiring people. The massive success of Macmillan, the massive success in the 1930s, those were the great days when the Conservatives won huge majorities, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same again. And we should also be the party that champions employment, and the best answer to poverty and inequality in London, which is unquestionably severe, is to get people apprenticeships and then into work, that should be the Tory recipe for success.
Inequality in London
“It is legitimate for Tories to worry about inequality. It is not irrelevant to human nature. We cannot fail to notice what is going on in the world around us, and if some people seem to be stupendously rich but not in any way connected to the society they’re living in, and not contributing to it in any obvious way, then that would be a cause for resentment, so it is very very important that those who have done well and those who are rich, that they do contribute, that they do reach out, they should be, this goes particularly for the banks, who haven’t really paid a big price for what happened in 2008, you know, they’ve got to be more engaged, and a lot of them are trying very hard, as we’ve seen.
“My answer to inequality is not to try endlessly to level down, it’s not a new concept, I’ve always thought that is very difficult to achieve and very rarely works. The answer is to smash down doors, to break down barriers, to let people rise up. London is a fantastic engine, motor, whatever the metaphor you want, it’s an amazing way of allowing people to do that. Because you have a great deal of poverty and deprivation and so on, but you’ve also got, right next to it, phenomenal opportunities, and my job, and a lot of the work we’ve been doing over the last five years, has been to try to help people who, you know, don’t, might not think of themselves as likely to get a job in banking or law or whatever, to help them to bridge the gap, and that’s what the Mayor’s Fund is there for and the apprenticeships. London is like a vast, what’s the word I’m thinking of, cyclotron, it’s like a huge machine that accelerates talent, and our job is to make sure that those who are missing out on the opportunities are helped."
Housing in London
“The big pressures on people’s standard of living include housing, huge cost, real problem, now I want to see people being able to rent more cheaply in London, that’s of vital importance, we’ve got huge numbers of people who’ve been priced further and further away from their place of work…What you’ve got to do is build tens of thousands more homes every year.
“The difficulty is that prices are now six or seven times earnings on average, and for low income earners prices are something like nine times lowest quartile earnings. It is seriously difficult for people on low incomes to live in central London. The biggest challenge now is for government to grip this house-building thing by building thousands more homes, and I know it always sounds worrying to people, they say what about the over-crowding. London was nine million in 1911 and nine million in 1939, we’re only 8.2 million at the moment, the city has traditionally shed huge numbers of people, we’re not shedding them, we’re producing huge numbers of babies. We will have done 100,000 new affordable homes by 2016. So that’s the big challenge. House price inflation as we all know is not an unmixed good. There are loads of people who love the idea that their property is going up and up in value, then there are far more people who cannot get on the property ladder.”
As Johnson showed me out of his office, he asked his staff what they think of his Costa Concordia metaphor. None of them looked enraptured. But I predict he will stick with it.