Don’t be taken in by the buffoonery. Boris is a very serious operator

No other politician has anything like his broad appeal

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The Independent Online

Like many people I was sceptical of Boris Johnson’s qualifications to be Mayor of London.

I suspect, like those who have had the opportunity to meet him at close quarters and observe him in action, my view duly changed.

I interviewed him just as the build-up to the Olympics was in full-swing. I’d known Boris as a journalist, briefly, in the House of Commons. In some respects, as Mayor, he was exactly as I remembered: funny, rumbustious, and irreverent.

We met in City Hall. There were some briefing notes waiting for him on the table. He pushed them to one side.

I asked him about his management style. He ran his fingers though his hair and laughed. He put on a stern face, setting his jaw and frowning. “I'm as hard as nails,” he boomed. “I'm the Lee Iacocca of London government! I walk around this place. I creep up behind people in my rubber shoes; I steal into their offices and peer over their shoulders. If they're playing Sudoku I stick a self-propelling pencil into their ears. They stop playing after that!”

“Seriously,” he said, lowering his voice, “I have a good team working with me. Each of them has a defined brief. I believe in giving them all ownership of something.” He banged the table, smiling. And raised the volume again. “And, by God, they've got to deliver!”

There are those who maintain that Boris cannot be Prime Minister; that he may want to become an MP again, as he announced this week; but that ultimately, 10 Downing Street is a step too far. They can’t imagine the 3am phone call with the US president, the heated, across-the-table negotiations with Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, the COBRA security committee meetings.

If all I had to go on was the public persona, in truth, neither can I. But what I saw was a quite different Boris, one who mixed humour with an underlying calculation .

As Mayor, he lacked much executive power, but it was still a huge brief, one that was demanding and punishing, and saw him constantly in the public eye. How did he cope? By “persuasion and uplift,” he replied.

It was, “like being in central government. It's not true what ministers say about civil servants. They're always moaning about them and blaming them. But the reality is officials are very talented and very hard-working. It's the same here - plenty of the officials have stayed all the way through. They love this city, they want to give their best.”

That did not stop him from taking hard decisions. Since taking over from Livingstone in 2008, he’d reduced the City Hall head count, “from about 600 to 350.” That must have been tough? He nodded. “I'm very squeamish and I have a tendency to put myself inside the head of others, to think what they must be thinking.”

He was, he admitted, extremely busy. “I read all my stuff. That over there,” he said, pointing to a scruffy cycle rucksack, “is my mayoral ‘red box’. I carry it on my bike and read it when I get home. And I get up very early. I go for a run slowly, along the canal, then I have a quick skid through the newspapers… It's 6.30 and I turn to the files.”

He’s nowhere near as off-the-cuff as is made out. “I look at all my speeches for the day. They're all blocked out. Everything in my diary is colour coded - green says it's an ordinary meeting, red means I'm performing. I usually make two or three speeches a day - my diary is full of big red blocks. I like to have an idea of what I'm going to say. I do my thinking on the bike on my way in.”

Contrast as well, this with the public persona: “My job [as Mayor] is to create the conditions in which business can flourish. We can't make a flower grow by pulling on it. It's not my function to identify which start-ups are going to be the Google, Microsoft or Dyson of tomorrow. My job is to get people to work on time, as quickly as they need in order to do their jobs, to keep the streets clean and safe, and to provide enough affordable housing. We have to build a platform of good, reliable public services, particularly transport, which enables the private sector to deliver the wealth for the poor and needy.”

There was a clarity and order about him that, again, the usual image masks. “The everyday issues I'm concerned with are quality of life, youth opportunities and fighting crime. Are we getting the most from our officials? That's our priority, to deliver as much as we can every day. That's what I do every day.”

We went on to talk about London and its problems, the economy, the City. He only stopped because he had a more pressing engagement: a planning meeting with the Olympics organisers.

There are questions about Boris’s past, and the resulting scandals, that could puncture his suitability. So far, though, no mortal blows have landed. Certainly, some of his more libertarian views require exploration and possible explanation.

Nobody else, though, has his broad appeal; no one comes close to igniting middle England, to firing youth. But once in office, has Johnson got what it takes? There’s no doubt we’d be in for a diplomatic roller-coaster ride. However, on the evidence of the approach I saw, yes he has. Make no mistake: Boris as PM is no laughing matter.