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

No other politician has anything like his broad appeal


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.

Mayor culpa: Boris Johnson is an exceptional talent, but he is doing voters a disservice in being a part-time leader of London
i Whitehall Editor's Letter: Scheming, charismatic, ambitious: is Boris Johnson the leader Conservative voters want?  

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.

What is the distinction between doing something anti-Semitic and being an anti-Semite?
This is how we can protect the citizens of Gaza and ensure the long-term security of Israel  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Year 4 Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: ugly buildings, fighting spirit, and a warning on low pay

John Rentoul
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?