Harry Phibbs reviews Victory in London by Alex Crowley
Victory in London: The inside story of the Boris campaign by Alex Crowley (Bretwalda Books. £17.99)
This is a story with a happy ending. Really two happy endings - as for your money you have an account of the first Boris Johnson victory of 2008, as well as the re-election that took place this year.
Included are some memos from Boris to his team in 2007 explaining why he wanted to be Mayor. Boris wrote:
"I want to be the mayor who CHAMPIONS AMBITION, and that means helping young kids cheat the dreadful fate of being sucked into a gang. This is where I think I can make the biggest difference to London, and I want as many policies as possible aimed at the INEQUALITY OF AMBITION. I have had a very privileged and very lucky life - and I want kids across London to have the kind of chances I have had. I will use sport, and art, and whatever powers I have over education and skills to help achieve this. That is the chief objective of my mayoralty."
In the same document, Boris said of the incumbent Ken Livingstone:
"He is no longer sticking up for the little guy against the system. He is the system. He has morphed into the ruling class like the pigs in Animal Farm. He sits like Smaug on the great heap of GOLD he has accumulated from the FINES (why don't we have a poster of a giant newt coiled avariciously around our dosh) - contrast my more generous regime, which will give people more time to pay and will be less brutal and fascistic and dictatorial."
You know the good guy wins both contests, but this doesn't stop the story being exciting. As Boris put it in 2010:
The Labour Party has responded to the challenge of finding a new mayoral candidate with a stupefying lack of originality. They have found a piece of DNA preserved in the tar pits of Cricklewood...Like Holmes and Moriarty, like Harry Potter and Voldemort, it seems that this contest is feted to continue for more than one episode.
But this triumph of Boris over Ken Livingstone, of good over evil, was far from a foregone conclusion. Labour had a clear lead in London in the 2010 General Election. By the start of this year their lead had grown considerably in terms of how Londoners would vote in a national election.
As if that wasn't enough, three big factors had made the challenge of re-electing Boris in 2012 even greater.
First of all were the rioters of August last year. Boris was late returning from holiday and was held responsible for the weak police response. He was left with a choice that was never going to be easy. Publicly criticising his own police force? Or trying to defend the indefensible of the police standing on the sidelines while shops were burnt and looted? It showed that improving policing in the metropolis had some way to go.Second, Mr Livingstone promised to cut transport fares. He claimed this could be done by using a surplus in Transport for London's account which had been absentmindedly left there for no particular reason. The Boris campaign responded that cutting fairs would mean that upgrades would not be able to proceed. Whatever the public scepticism about this, the prospect of a fares cut was very popular. Even if it did mean the investment was delayed. Even if there was only a 50/50 chance that Livingstone would keep his word. Even if the fares cut was smaller than he said it would be. (My own view is that Boris would have been in a stronger position on this issue if he had done more to tackle the chronic waste in TfL which would have allowed fares to have been kept down.)
Third, we had this year's budget - with its tiresome tax increases - which dragged down the Conservatives popularity still further. Crowley refers to a "blue anchor" holding back the Boris campaign.
Yet for those journalists who had been out on the campaign trail with Boris it was hard to believe he could lose. They had seen the amazing warmth in the response of the public. Then again I suppose Winston Churchill got plenty of cheers when out on the stump in the 1945 General Election campaign. What Churchill didn't have were all the focus groups and pollsters.
There was little chance of any lazy complacency in the Boris campaign given the tough minded Lynton Crosby and his business partner the pollster Mark Textor ('call me Tex, mate') running the campaign. The Aussie duo were not infallible - in a presentation in the 2008 campaign they showed various slides which made reference to "Kevin Livingstone." They had got muddled up with an Australian politician called Kevin Rudd. "Boris still roars with laughter about it to this day," says Crowley. However the substance of the message was valid.
The friction between Boris and David Cameron is acknowledged, although regarded by Crowley as more a clash of styles than rivalry. At meetings Cameroon would sit with "a perfectly straight back" to which Boris responded by "exaggerating his slouch more than usual."
"If Boris was the schoolboy who handed in his essay late, Cameron was the schoolboy who always handed his essay in on time. Both would know that Boris got higher marks. Cameron seemed irritated by Boris's haphazardness. Boris seemed irritated by Cameron's smoothness. This was perfectly demonstrated when Cameron attempted to straighten Boris's tie before the main campaign launch in Edmonton, as if he were his mother. And just like a child, Boris successfully squirmed his way free from the interference."
Another friction that is covered in this volume is between the campaign team (including Crowley himself although he had earlier worked in City Hall) and Boris's City Hall advisors - people such as Guto Hari and Matthew Pencharz.
The campaign team warned that however numerous the achievements of Boris as Mayor of London might be they hadn't resonated. They wanted to stick to the basics, repeating clear messages on crime, Council Tax and the economy - while also hammering away with negative points about Livingstone's character flaws. The City Hall team were keen to broaden the message by talking about interesting projects like the cable car and the estuary airport.
The end result was a compromise. By instinct, Boris likes to talk about lots of different subjects, rather than repeating boring campaign mantras. He would also rather get stuck into a difficult argument rather than avoid making something an issue. But he is not thick. When presented with the findings of a focus group he would take notice. He wanted to win.
It was all right on the night (just). 1,054, 811 votes to 992,273. Boris was enough of a politician to get his messages across - while being different enough from other politicians to retain a strong personal vote.
This is an enthralling account. Lots of useful lessons from the campaign. Those of us whose legs became tired pounding the streets for Boris, and whose fingers became tired tweeting and blogging in support of him, are entitled over Christmas to wallow in the nostalgia of this great political triumph of 2012.