Regular readers, and we know where you live, will recall occasional references to a Theory of Boris to describe the psychological and Kremlinological analyses we occasionally do in an attempt to determine why Boris does what he does when he does. Rather than break things down into, say, a General and a Special Theory of Boris, I prefer to have a Relatively Uncertain Theory of Boris, to reflect the fact that, quite often, we know where he is, but not where he’s going, and vice versa.
In the beginning, Boris had a Mayoral campaign heavily influenced by a couple of strong contingents. First, we had the Policy Exchange contingent (plus the Radical Nostalgia freaks, like Simon Jenkins and Andrew Gilligan, who were involved in starting the whole Routemaster/bendy affair via Policy Exchange), who managed to persuade Boris to insert things like the return of two-crew Routemasters and the abolition of bendy buses into his manifesto. They provided a lot of the early muscle in his administration – the famous Transition Team, Nick Boles and the rest. Their hallmark is things like the Routemaster – expansive, no-costs-considered policy very much predicated on a strong central organisation making the decisions, which if you think about it, is how the original got built. Their underlying ideology is akin to neo-conservatism – key belief: Anglo-Saxon manhood and all he holds dear is continually under threat from Muslims/women’s lib/the disabled lobby/Europe/Communists/Virgin Trains, and only demonstrations of Will by strong men of proven virtue will do, and hang the cost. There’s always an Enemy, it’s always 1938 and we only have 24 hours to save the world. What’s most notable about this crew is that they’re stuffed with journalists, often from the Spectator (former editor: B. Johnson), and they are also strongly linked to the so-called ‘Decent Left‘ and Nick Cohen, who aren’t remotely what we would historically recognise as Conservative with either size ‘c’. Remember that Boris’s campaign adviser, Lynton Crosby, formerly worked with the very neocon John Howard in Australia. Get the picture? Notably, very few of them have experience of actual politics, which proved a handicap later on. They also have internal inconsistencies – some are exercised about New Labour’s attack on British liberties, some are exercise about New Labour being soft on extremists. This doesn’t help.
Then there were the London Borough Boys, operating through the London Councils organisation as a kind of unofficial opposition. They saw taking control of the Mayoralty as a good way to expand their powerbase, directly reduce their council taxes and act as a step to a Conservative-dominated London of the Boroughs (which is not, hitherto, something the capital has enjoyed too often, even during Mrs. Thatcher’s heyday). To them, the important thing is reducing taxes for their voters and increasing their power – in fact the key differentiating factor here is that they actually *have* voters. These guys are generally politicians of long standing, honed by the cut and thrust of everyday politics and not inclined to take any prisoners. In fact, so transparent was their intention that they nearly got in trouble over Sir Simon Milton’s desire to hang onto his borough job while advising Boris on planning, contrary to the Widdicombe Rules (which I note Boris’s pint-sized sparring partner Hazel Blears is busy trying to scrap).
Naturally, these two groups have very little in common – on one level it’s as simple as one seeing the misuse of funds as the problem, the other sees the use of funds as the problem. It’s obvious in retrospect that there was an almightly power struggle in the first four months of the Mayoralty between the two groups, which, aided by some colossal cockups by the Policy Exchange crew (Ray Lewis in particular, who was heavily pushed by them), led to a near total victory by the Borough Boys, with Sir Simon Milton ousting Tim Parker as the main figure in the administration, and two out of four directorates in the revised structure being led by them, with Boris’s mainly PX-influenced policy team pretty much marginalised. There’s no point coming up with radical policies if the Borough Boys control the money.
Actually, the other two directorates are led by a mate of Boris from Oxford (Guto Harri) and Martin Clarke, who was inherited from Livingstone. This illustrates another hallmark of the two groups – the PX brigade want a revolutionary change of regime (shades of Iraq?) with everyone tainted with newtness executed or at least defenestrated, while the Borough Boys are quite willing to keep people on provided they do what they’re told and the taxes come down. Evolution, not revolution – they, as conservatives, believe in keeping, not changing. It’s all about controlling the risk and thereby the cost.
This isn’t to say Boris didn’t struggle against this – the decision to scrap the Western Extension, strongly supported by the Tory Boroughs (particularly Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham) was rendered ludicrously opaque by Boris holding two ‘consultations’, one apparently devised to give a ‘yes’ vote (and thus keep up TfL’s income) and one clearly rigged to get a ‘no’. The boroughs gave big airtime to the latter, and prevailed. The cost probably ensures TfL spend a lot of time financially fire-fighting in 2011/12 instead of ordering hundreds of Routemasters and torching bendies. Revolutions are risky and cost money, after all, and the knock-on effect is that the cherished Policy Exchange bus policy is now merely replacing bendies over seven years and possibly having a new Routemaster in 2011 or 2012. At this point the PX crew start getting disillusioned and warn of dreadful consequences if guards are relaxed.
There are other examples – Boris Airport, which looks on the face of it like a big, revolutionary policy is not supported by the PX gang because they see it as an out-of-town distraction from the real business of stamping out their political enemies. It is, of course, only floated to appeal to a particular kind of West London voter, who wants to fly abroad on holiday but doesn’t want aircraft noise. ‘Shove it out to sea?’, they say, ‘what a top idea. I’ll definitely vote Tory, and tell my friends’. The same holds true for pro-motorist policies like rephasing or even removing traffic lights, cutting back on the congestion charge, not enforcing targets on affordable homes – all fervently supported by London Tories, because they know they can sell it in Labour marginals come 2010.
Once you start seeing Team Boris as essentially a front for moving power to the boroughs, a lot of things become clear. The chaos on Snowday is because the boroughs were allowed to go their own way on street clearance with no central control exerted, and some did better than others which is absolutely no use when you have a bus network to run. The (very Policy Exchange-y) policy on St. George’s Day has to be spun out of the plane of the solar system to disguise the fact that the freeze in council tax means a freeze in the money available for the celebrations. The voluntary decision to hand back reserve powers on the Freedom Pass – boroughs benefit again – the Freedom Pass is an unknown future drain on the budget, so they want in. Not putting up a fight to save London’s skyline (a policy straight from the Simon Jenkins playbook) – that’s because Sir Simon is in charge of planning and he’s not going to lay down the law to his mates. High-rise property development is good, it channels money to the rich, who channel it to the Tories, who channel it into winning elections. That’s the way of the world, and Andrew Gilligan isn’t going to stop it. Boris, always seeking love, always wanting to be friends with everyone, is a pushover if you can keep your guys around him and make sure the other side never get a chance to bend his ear. To an old political hand like Milton this must be easy stuff. It probably explains the lack of press conference time, too. Journalists, you see. The enemy within.
That’s the Theory of Boris March 2009, but no theory is complete unless it has the power to predict. I offer these three:
- Boris will move more power to the boroughs in 2009/10
- Boris will not attempt anything remotely revolutionary or risky in this Mayoral term
- Boris will commit another outrageous piece of spin in the next year to disguise something the boroughs want to happen
Meanwhile, Dispatches is getting the hatchet out on Boris just as it did for his predecessor. Dispatches, of course, has historic connections to the PX fraternity. They must be getting disillusioned. If you’ve come here from the programme’s website, welcome, and let us know what you think.
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