Interview: Boris Johnson
Rebecca Taylor finds that the mayor is still confident he's the right man for City Hall
Can a man’s state of mind be determined by the style of his hair? If so, Boris Johnson is in a particularly sober mood. His blond crop, famous for its cheeky tousle, is resolutely tamed today. When I interviewed him four years ago, during the last mayoral campaign, I was impressed by his humour, energy and passion. By comparison, Ken Livingstone had seemed jaded. This time, sitting in front of the huge expanse of windows that overlook the Thames in his office in City Hall, it is Johnson who looks as if he has the weight of the world (or at least the capital) on his shoulders.
Then again, he has spent four years governing one of the greatest but most challenging cities, and is in the middle of a fiercely fought election campaign against his old rival Livingstone. Surely the man’s allowed to look a little bit tired? Initially derided for being a lovable buffoon, Johnson has proved a surprisingly uncontroversial mayor.
And given that he has been in office during citywide rioting, as well as the worst economic downturn in decades, his popularity has remained more or less unscathed. London, clearly, loves a maverick. The more flamboyant and larger than life, the more fitting for this colourful, uninhibited city. But now that Johnson has shown his ‘serious side’, will Londoners still flock to him?
Either way, the famed mischievousness has not entirely disappeared. As I hand him the latest copy of Time Out, he instantly turns to the back. ‘Ah, those naughty pages! They’ve been cut out,’ he says, referring to the magazine’s decision last year to ditch its more risqué classified ads. The twinkle in his eye is unmistakable.
How have you made the last four years distinctively ‘Boris’?
‘The big difference between me and the previous mayor is that I’ve kept my promises; I’ve delivered on everything that we said we were going to do in 2008. When I came here, there was no budget for the bikes. Crossrail was under serious threat and about to be axed. There were [government] ministers who were saying that there was no point in building a socking great trench under London and that the easiest way to cut public spending was to get rid of a £14.5 billion item that nobody had seen and wouldn’t miss. However, it will make a huge difference to London. I’m also pleased that we’ve now got the Olympics in on time and under budget by half a billion pounds.’
Was there anything Ken did that was good?
‘Nothing immediately springs to mind. I think losing the election last time was one of his most magnificent acts. I do think that there were some things that Ken did that were good, but he wasted colossal sums of money. He behaved in an autocratic way.’
On crime, the good news is that homicides have gone down, but figures for some knife crimes have gone up. Why is that?
‘I’m not going to tell you that the figures are all good because they’re not, but we are seeing evidence that people are robbing by saying they’ve got a knife and that gets put down as knife crime.’
People are pretending they have a knife?
‘That goes down as knife crime: as an intimation of knives. Violence overall is very, very, considerably down against a background of great economic difficulty. That is very unusual for a big city.’
How successful has your mentoring scheme [a £1.3 million programme that aims to match 1,000 adult mentors with 1,000 black boys thought to be at risk of becoming involved in crime] been so far?
‘There has been a slow start and I don’t for a minute deny that. It hasn’t been easy to get the mentoring programme going. We’ve had about 170 parents so far who have volunteered. They aren’t big numbers and we want to expand it.’
The ‘Boris Bike’ scheme has proved popular, but there are questions over Barclays, which sponsors it. The bank’s been criticised because it has allegedly avoided paying up to £500m in taxes. What do you think about that?
‘Well, I’m against tax dodging, and if there’s a loophole that needs to be closed I’ll certainly support that. However, I’m slightly suspicious of people who rail against tax dodgers and call for bankers to be hanged or call people who have taxavoidance schemes “rich bastards” [referring to comments made by Livingstone]. The bike scheme is extending to Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Shepherd’s Bush and it will be great for those neighbourhoods. I was in Mile End talking to an estate agent the other day about the economic benefits of having the bikes there and he thought they were great.’
Can we talk about housing? Many Londoners are stuck in rental accommodation that is in a very poor condition. How will you help them?
‘We have helped 23,000 Londoners on to the housing ladder through our First Steps scheme, where people who find themselves in difficulties can get on to a part-buy part-rent scheme. We have built a record number of new homes, a huge proportion of them for social rent, a big chunk of them for part-buy, part-rent and from 2012 we are going to build even more. We have been working with the boroughs to improve renting conditions and we’ve got 9,000 accredited landlords now. We’ve got a system to make sure we don’t have Rigsbys and Rachmans all over London.’
In 2008, you pledged that London would be the greenest city in the world. What have you done to achieve this?
‘Look at what we’ve done with the Low Emission Zone [the LEZ requires owners of lorries, buses and coaches to meet emissions standards]. And we brought in age limits for taxis [licences will not be issued for black cabs that are more than 15 years old]. Old Livingstone, old invertebrate newt – if you can have an invertebrate newt – he never brought in age limits for taxis, he never brought in the cleanest bus in the whole of Europe.’
Some people might say you haven’t gone far enough…
‘Can I tell you something about the new bus for London? It does twice as many miles to the gallon as a current diesel bus and about 30 to 40 per cent more than the current hybrid [part diesel, part electric] bus. It’s a fantastic machine.’
But it’s been widely reported that the first eight new buses cost £1.3m each. Isn’t that a lot for a bus?
‘No. It’s like saying that the cost of a new Mini is £30m because the cost of developing a new Mini is £500m. We have developed a cutting-edge piece of British technology that will drive British jobs for only slightly more than the cost of one year’s fare evasion on the bendy buses. If you want to have an election about which is the better bus for London: a German-made bendy bus that blocks the streets, or a very low-carbon British-made bus that restores the hop-on hop-off platform and which can be delivered – for the cost of each individual bus – at no more than [that of] the current hybrid bus, which is £320,000, I know who is going to win that argument.’
Has the job changed you?
‘I love the job. It engages you on every level and that’s why I want to keep doing it. Has it made me more serious, more passionate? Yes. I didn’t begin with the kind of knowledge that I have now of London and the issues that affect Londoners. I feel genuinely like a guy who’s built half a bridge. I can see the other side and obviously I want to be given the chance to complete it.’
In 2015, if there is a general election and the Conservative Party says, ‘Boris we need you to lead the party…’
‘I’ve ruled that out already.’
Is that a promise that you wouldn’t stand down as mayor to pursue your national ambitions?
‘It is. These are the figments of your imagination. Rebecca, you are a very good journalist but this is a naked last-minute buttering-up strategy.’
In the cut and thrust of the campaign, Ken has called you Hitler. Which figure from history would you compare him to?
‘I leave the juvenile name-calling to the old iguanodon!’