Boris Johnson: interview, April 2008



Add +

Bendy buses, bike routes and bringing back the Routemaster... Rebecca Taylor isn‘t sure if all of his sums add up, but she finds the previously jocular Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson, in a serious and combative mood. Even – dare we say it – tetchy

  • Boris Johnson: interview, April 2008

    Boris Johnson

  • It’s rather cheeky of Boris Johnson to have chosen County Hall as his mayoral campaign headquarters: after all, the first person who comes to mind here is not Boris, but his nemesis, Ken Livingstone, ignobly ousted from his position here as head of the Greater London Council in 1986 by that other larger-than-life Tory, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. But on the day I meet him, he’s less cheeky than peeved, grumbling about the ‘sniping’ comments Time Out columnist Michael Hodges had written about him a few weeks previously. It’s clear he’s anxious to be taken seriously; he’s listening attentively and concentrating hard. Jocular, flippant Boris has been left at home today, it seems – although his policies hardly satisfy as substitutes. Only at the end, when the interview is over, does he break into his infamous wise-cracking patter, as if finally let off the leash. He’s undeniably good company – but is that enough to merit making him London mayor?

    Why do you want to be mayor?

    ‘It’s the most wonderful job. London is the most fantastic city and I could do a better job than the current incumbent.’

    Isn’t the real reason because you couldn’t see a place for yourself in a future Cameron cabinet?

    ‘Nonsense. As soon as the mayor job existed, I remember filing it away in the back of my head, thinking it would be wonderful to do. And as the months went by and nobody else came forward, I thought: Why is there no competition? Ken is not doing a good job, it’s time to remove him from office. I was trying to overtake a bendy bus a couple of years ago, and almost got killed. I remember feeling such blinding rage at whoever had put these things on the streets that I did focus briefly on removing that person from office.’

    Running Henley is very different from running London. Compared to the other candidates, you have little experience of London politics. Why will you make a good London leader?

    ‘I grew up on the streets of Camden and Ladbroke Grove. I’ve known London all my life and love it. And it has changed for the better. Look at Time Out. It was much skimpier when it started out; now look, it's bursting with things to do. But one thing London doesn’t have is that feeling of safety. When I was a kid we used to go into the parks and walk to school and it was much more tranquil for parents looking after their kids. My top priority as mayor will be to give people that sense of security.’

    How will you do that?

    ‘By reallocating some of the mayor’s publicity budget, having slightly fewer posters of the Mayor of London looming out at us, and putting another 440 Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) on rowdier bus routes to give people a sense of safety. If you talk to people on a bus at 3.30pm, when school’s out, they find it a lot more intimidating than it should be. We’re also going to get another 50 British Transport Police out in suburban stations.’

    Ken’s already upped officers on the beat, he’s upped PCSOs on the buses and increased Transport Police. What’s the big difference between you two?

    ‘I don’t think the problem on the buses has been dealt with. He’s out of touch. There’s more that needs to be done. One thing that does differentiate me from him: teenagers that abuse their free travel [under-18s travel free on buses and trams] think there’s no comeback. We should systematically take away free travel from kids who abuse it by intimidating other people on the bus.’

    But that happens already.

    ‘Only 265 kids have had their right to travel actually revoked. It hasn’t happened in the numbers that we need to provide a significant deterrent, and then say “We’re going to give you the right to earn it back through community service” [Livingstone has recently announced he will adopt a similar policy]. If you turn a blind eye to fare evasion, if you accustom people to getting away with minor crime, you are making it more likely that they will go on to commit more serious crimes. That is why we have so much disorder in London. It is a disgrace. You are more likely to be mugged in London than New York.’

    That’s not true. Met figures show that crime has gone down in London; the most recent transport figures show bus crime is down by 11 per cent.

    ‘Violent crime is up 3.4 per cent and crime overall on buses is up by 17 per cent [in the past four years]. We’ll have to differ on our figures. We need to start taking people’s experience of crime seriously. I want proper crime mapping. If you know how many crimes are committed locally, you can tell the police “Listen, this isn’t being dealt with and you need to do something about it.” ’

    While we’re on the topic of buses: a major plank of your transport policy is to bring back the Routemaster buses.

    Do you admit you’re wrong now about the sums involved? [Johnson costed the figure for conductors on new-style Routemasters as £8 million. TfL estimates the cost as £49m].

    ‘Nonsense. I was asked how much it would cost to supply a conductor for every bendy bus. If you had one conductor for every ‘new generation’ Routemaster, it would cost £8m. If you had three conductors [if Routemasters were to maintain the same passenger capacity as the present bendy buses, they would need three conductors], it would cost £25m. It would not cost the absurd, inflated, hysterical figures quoted by TfL.’

    But apart from conductors, the total cost of bringing back Routemasters is phenomenal. TfL has estimated it as £121m. Where is that coming from?

    ‘What’s going on here is that there’s a hysterical attempt to focus on a small aspect of one policy.’

    But you’ve made this a big part of your policy. When I ask people about you, the first thing they say is, ‘Boris wants to bring back the Routemasters.’ When will these new buses be introduced?

    ‘You’ve got to look at this as a four-year process. What I want to do is to issue a competition to design a new Routemaster.’

    This is going to take a long time then?

    ‘Yes, I aspire to produce this at the end of a four-year term. In the meantime, the bendy bus will continue. As and when we get better replacements we will be withdrawing them.’

    What will they be replaced with?

    ‘They will be replaced by new Routemasters when we’ve got them. In the meantime they’ll be replaced by other buses. The bendy has some advantages. I like the fact it’s disabled-friendly and buggy-friendly and it is a prodigious carrier of people and fits under underpasses. But it doesn’t have that open back platform.’

    It seems a little insincere, to have put so much emphasis on bringing back the Routemaster when it’s not going to happen for four years and won’t really be a Routemaster at all.

    ‘Please reassure your readers it will happen.’

    What about the tube. How will you make that less crowded?

    ‘It’s important we get track and signalling addressed to get trains moving.’

    The tube is already being refurbished – how will you speed that up?

    ‘One thing I won’t do as mayor is to engage in pointless ideological hostilities with the group [tube workers] that is supposed to be repairing the tube for the people of London. We should go to the RMT [the tube union] and bring an end to industrial action.’

    The Mayor opposed the last lot of strikes.

    ‘But how about if we said to the RMT: “If there’s a dispute about pay and conditions, you agree in principle not to withdraw your labour, in exchange, we will agree to binding independent arbitration about that dispute”?’

    I can’t see Bob Crow [militant RMT leader] going for that! Do you have any other vision for transport, extending the tube in south London for example?

    ‘We can connect tube lines without new tracks. We can join up transport hubs east-west with a light rail, and by expanding the Croydon tram link and orbital express buses.’

    Don’t National Express buses do that already?

    ‘That’s right, but you could Oysterise that.’

    On a different subject, one thing I’d like to ask you about: you’ve lived a closeted establishment life studying at Eton and Oxford, and your kids are at private school now. How can you possibly identify with the needs and lives of real Londoners?

    ‘I reject the concept of a real Londoner. It’s not only given to a minority of people to love and care about London. No one has a monopoly of love and understanding for this city.’

    The experiences you have had are not similar to many Londoners.

    ‘Most people would accept that people come to London from across the world, from all kinds of backgrounds and are accepted here irrespective of their origins.’

    You can represent that?

    ‘Of course. I’m made up of immigrant stock, I went to a primary school in London, I grew up eating Spangles, why shouldn’t I be as well placed to speak for Londoners as anyone else?’

    If you do represent all Londoners, why have leaders in the black community, Muslim groups and even a black Tory councillor said ‘Don’t vote for Boris’?

    ‘Clearly the Mayor is very keen to cling onto office and he is using every shot to persuade people that I am something that I’m not. This is about an article I wrote five years ago in which words I used, intended as a satirical spoof, have been taken out of context. I have to accept that those words did cause offence and you can’t use that language.'

    [His PR ends the interview; our photographer starts to pose Boris for pictures. Boris continues talking]

    ‘That was very bleak. Not very uplifting. Can’t we get a bit of sunshine in there?’

    Okay, let’s get some sunshine in. Tell me about your cycle policies.

    ‘I want London to be the most cycle-friendly city on earth and I want more people to be happy and safe on bicycles.’

    What will you do about the one-way system outside Tottenham Court Road?

    ‘I certainly think gyratory systems need to be looked at to make them cycle-friendly.’

    But the £2m you’ve proposed for cycling is peanuts compared to the £500m cycling investment just proposed by Ken.

    ‘Look at the congestion charge. It has taken £930m that was supposed to improve the roads, yet only a small part of that has actually gone where it was supposed to. Ken makes it up as he goes along. One of the first things I’d do as mayor is to make sure cyclists obey the rules of the road.’

    I hope you’ll be including yourself there, Boris. My partner cycles through Whitehall every day and has seen you jump red lights on a number of occasions.

    ‘Oh dear, he’s a Whitehall cyclist is he? Hmm… Well, it’s about time Livingstone learned to ride a bike. I’m going to teach him to ride a bike. I’m going to teach him to drive a car, too.’

    Isn’t the point that he gets the tube, so he doesn’t need to drive?

    ‘We all use public transport, but we all need to understand what it’s like to overtake a bendy bus in traffic. I don’t see how he can be Mayor of London without understanding those things.’

  • Add your comment to this feature

Users say