Feature: Don’t look back, Boris

Twelve months on from his election, Boris has not proved a disaster. But it’s not clear he’s proved himself in any other way, either.

By Alex Stevenson

From the start there were doubts about whether he would be able to escape the caricature he so easily lapses into. There’s a fine line between being hopelessly charming and charmingly hopeless; and initially there was every indication he might struggle to assume the gravitas his new office required. In his first press conference he pressed the need to “promote” Latin across greater London. He launched a scathing attack against sandwiches. And then there were the “concrete measures” he intended to introduce to boost the city’s greenness. If we cut Boris in half, would we find nothing but absurdity all the way through?

A series of resignations in the first weeks of his administration underlined this sense of chaos further. But by August he was bedding down, getting a grip. A relieved City Hall official told me then that, while he’d been initially overwhelmed, he was starting to get to grips with his new role. It was just taking a bit of time, that was all.

This was at the launch of his climate change action plan, held at the Thames Barrier in late August. I asked the mayor whether he had any lessons to learn from King Canute.

“King Canute is always cited as evidence of a vainglorious politician who thought he could turn back the waves,” he answered gamely. “Of course that’s completely wrong, isn’t it? Number one journalistic howler.”

That was me put in my place. This was gravitas, Boris-style. Perhaps, despite himself, he could make a go of being mayor.

Fast-forward to April 30th 2009. Johnson was chairing a public meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority, investigating the policing of the G20 protests. The same idiosyncrasies were there – he described one explanation given by Met officers as “completely crackers” – but he had the authority to persuade a group of activists to cease heckling. No mean feat, and a clear reflection of the businesslike way in which he went about managing the proceedings.

Perhaps Boris has taken some confidence from the successes of his first year. “He’s certainly delivered on many of his manifesto promises,” Rick Muir of thinktank IPPR told me. He won applause at the Conservative party conference for freezing the GLA council tax. He quickly implemented the ban on alcohol on the London Underground. He scrapped the western extension of the congestion charge.

His biggest powerplay, the ousting of Sir Ian Blair as head of the Met, was another big coup. Sir Ian made clear it was Boris who forced him to quit. It seemed he had seized the power of dismissal over the commissioner.

Susan Kramer, a former mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democrats and the sitting MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, hopes his attempts to “politicise policing” are just a phase. “I think he realised there’s been a bit of a shock to the system,” she says. “I hope he has stepped back from that because the last thing we need in this city is a politicised police force.”

Ms Kramer has a long list of grievances about Boris’ failings in the last 12 months. Whether it’s affordable housing (in “absolute crisis”) or green issues (cancellation of low emissions zone, the estuary airport and “window-box environmentalism”), she’s critical of his policies. But it’s not all bad.

“I don’t think he’s been particularly ambitious in his plans to sell London but I think when he does go abroad people like him and they see the role of mayor as positive, not as a minus for London. So I think he is a good salesman for it,” she says.

Mr Muir disagrees. He views the mayor’s role – as it was in Ken’s day – as pivotal to encouraging more investment and tourists to London. “It needs a face, an outward-looking vision,” he presses. “I still don’t understand from Boris what that is.”

This is a fundamental criticism of the Johnson mayoralty. Mr Muir feels strongly about this; his worry is that Boris’ policies don’t seem, in the end, to add up to anything. With Ken the themes were there for all to see: environmental sustainability, multiculturalism and diversity, and fairly distributed economic growth. “I don’t get a sense of what kind of place Boris wants London to be,” Mr Muir says. “I don’t think he really knows.”

This echoes the first comments Ms Kramer gave: “I think he’s been someone who’s filled the job rather than have a vision for London. Most of what he’s proposed is sort of a marginal variation on what exists rather than leadership.”

So there are real doubts for Boris to overcome as he enters his second year. There’s a sense he’s aware of this; in a recent interview with the Guardian he gave himself a mediocre six-and-a-half out of ten. And while he has distanced himself from Conservative central office, he still has to face the doubters on the London political scene.

Yesterday one member of the MPA dismissed his management style as “ridiculous” in a stage whisper after he decided to group a series of questions together. He stared at her for several seconds thoughtfully, looking rather hurt, before pulling himself together. Despite the first year whizzing by, Boris has not yet set the defining tone for his mayoralty. There’s all still to play for, which – depending on how you look at it – is either a very good or a very bad thing.