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Governing without its stigma, the dangerous likelihood of Boris Johnson's second term

London elects its Mayor in May by a direct vote. Boris Johnson, the Tory 'buffoon' and present incumbent looks sets to win again over Ken Livingstone, who seems bereft of sparkle and substance. But what are the peculiar politics of Boris? How has he turned Thatcherism into something people want to cuddle?

Richard Seymour
29 March 2012

Four years ago when Boris Johnson was first elected Mayor, Jeremy Gilbert wrote a long essay on its significance for the left . Now he fights on as the incumbent.   

In 2008, the outer ring of rich suburbs in the capital turned out en masse to elect Boris Johnson as their mayor. These suburbs, ripe in the spring air with the whiff of barbecues and bigotry, knew what they wanted. A mayor who would cut all the trendy programmes, put the frighteners on young thugs, sock it to the unions and practice a suitable ambiguity toward London’s unsettling multiculture.   

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True enough, in very short order, Boris had scrapped the anti-racist Rise Festival, banned alcohol on public transport, introduced knife-scanners on the tube, cut funding for rape crisis centres, and cancelled a deal with Venezuela providing cheap oil to fund reduced bus fares.  Transport costs under Johnson have soared. The administration also, as promised, selected a patina of traditionalism in which to cover the anarchic turmoil of the city and its City: its emblem, the Routemaster bus.

The latter gesture was classically Boris Johnson. Apt to give the impression of charming old world eccentricity, he seems to declare his bafflement at ideology. His mayoralty is represented to Londoners not primarily as an agenda of aggressive business-led modernism and brutish authoritarianism, characteristic of the Thatcherite Right from which he hails, but rather through a series of heroic-comic ‘exploits’ and ‘mishaps’. Boris rescues an activist from some hoodie-wearing girls.  Boris falls into the river during an eco-friendly photo-shoot. Boris has to sack yet another advisor over racism, or fraud. Boris makes another gaffe and has to say sorry.

This pose of stumbling through political life enables him to direct contrary and incongruous discourses at his various audiences. To his admiring Telegraph-reading audience, he keeps up the Thatcherite bombast. He began his campaign by informing them that the Livingstone campaign was “a bunch of Trotskyist, car-hating, Hugo Chavez idolising, newt-fancying hypocrites and bendy bus fetishists”. To the city’s centrist voters, he projects the image of a bluff deal-maker and pragmatist. This is the image that dominates his election website: getting things done, improving transport, making everyone safer. To the numerically large left-of-centre vote, he allows a suspicion that he might harbour some faintly progressive ideas on the environment (he cycles to work), and on education (he claims to oppose selection). 

It is a cliché that politicians want to be ‘all things to all people’, and inasmuch as any successful political formation must reconcile multiple antagonistic subject-positions, this has an element of truth.  But coyness to this degree is not merely opportunistic: it is a sign of weakness. It is not just that Johnson can’t win in London on a Thatcherite ticket. It is not just that he can’t openly brag about the many little ways in his administration has ratcheted up the city’s cruelties for its poor, homeless and migrant population. It is that he doesn’t have the clout to really fulfil any rightist mandate he might get. 

Take the unions. The one thing the Right wanted Boris to do was to deal with the RMT. So Boris promised a ‘no-strike’ deal, which he could not deliver. Unlike Ken Livingstone, who understands union bureaucracies and almost inflicted a defeat on the RMT, Boris never came close. It is significant that the only major conflict with the unions, a fight with the fire fighters’ union, the FBU, was led by the embarrassingly bellicose Brian Coleman rather than Johnson himself. Coleman announced, amid much spittle-lathered verbiage, that he intended to “break the FBU”. In the end, the administration was fortunate to exit the dispute with a last-minute compromise.

But his biggest weakness is the coalition government.  Johnson is a senior Tory, has spent time in the shadow front benches, has led Conservative campaigns, and is close to David Cameron.  Yet, his London campaign seems almost embarrassed to be a Tory campaign.  On his website, there is but a tiny colophon of conservatism - that little blue and green tree that has replaced the flaming, phallic, red white and blue torch.  Its thematics are so dully technocratic that without his celebrity and endearing pratfalls, he would be hard-pressed to enthuse anyone.  He makes great play of distancing himself from the government’s austerity measures, as with the ‘granny tax’, and of harbouring spirited independence. 

But this is the point. His major achievement as Tory mayor, if he is re-elected, will be to have made himself a viable Conservative leader. He requires the authority of having governed without any of its stigma. This is why he cannot afford to be tarnished by what the government is doing, for what they are doing is a tremendous gamble. It may, in the long run halt and reverse the secular decline in Tory Britain. The restructuring of British capitalism is not taking place without an eye to cultivating the middle class voter base: the promulgation of ‘free schools’, for example, offers an expanded means of reproducing the middle class through the segregated education of its offspring. But it is still a gamble, particularly if a new recession looms. Hence, Boris shrugs his shoulders, denies all responsibility and, for effect, walks straight into a lamp-post.

Yet the aura of unreality about Boris, the glory of the clown, may not protect him. For, aside from amusement, clowns are known to provoke coulrophobia: a cringing fear and horror. I have always suspected that there is a rational basis for this fear, that it expresses a deep human intuition that the whacky among us are concealing a predatory, sociopathic streak. One thinks of all the ‘characters’ with reactionary sympathies in British life: John McCririck, Jimmy Saville, Boris Johnson.  And beneath the Etonian façade of jovial civility, there lies a semi-criminal fraternity of fired and present deputies and advisors, an administration up to its neck in Hackgate,  a mayor who thinks like a Powellite (even sharing the same cadences when he speaks of “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”), and a city whose spivs were never more protected while its poor circle the Thames Estuary.  

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The cliché phrase is “out of touch”. But this implies that there was once contact, now broken. In reality, Boris is still very much ‘in touch’ with most of those who mobilised on his behalf in 2008.  There is no indication whatever that the bedrock, middle class Tory voters, are about to defect.  If nothing else, he can always promise them one more futile go at the unions. As for the rest, Johnson was never more than an endearing pratfall spread-eagling itself across the television screen - the unwary had woken up to news of his election with either astonishment or outrage. If Johnson is at all endangered – and he still has a clear edge over his rival - it is by a surge in turnout among the latter constituency, and also by the unpredictable behaviour of the defecting Liberal Democrat voters. 

The Liberal Democrats are nowhere in this election, polling an average of 5 per cent. They have lost their ‘unique selling point’, which was not being the other two main parties. Now a different psephological equation obtains. If voters want the Conservative programme, they may as well vote Conservative; if they reject it, they can’t very well vote Liberal. This introduces an odd variable, and perhaps accounts for the extraordinary size of the swings, with each candidate’s projected vote share oscillating within a margin of ten percentage points. But it also changes the dynamics of second preference voting. Many Liberal voters, it must be assumed, will either not vote or defect to smaller parties. Either tendency will magnify the importance of smaller parties. 

Thus, the mayoral candidates will have to conduct delicate fishing operations for these dispersed second preferences. Livingstone’s strategy is clear, if tarnished by its failure in 2008: build a broad progressive front, between liberals, socialists and Greens.  This is natural territory for him.  Johnson, by contrast, has had to repudiate the second vote of any BNP supporter after the party urged its voters to Back Boris.  But it must have hurt him to do so – tens of thousands of votes is not a small margin in a London mayoral election. The fragments of the right (UKIP, the English Democrats, the Christian People’s Alliance) must perforce interest Johnson, and he must polarise enough to mobilise them without appearing to, and without exciting too much antagonism among the opposing electorate. This is Johnson’s dilemma. 

But I suspect that he will prevail by a narrow margin. His charisma will be used to manage and suppress his contradictions, a little Thatcherite bombast will rally the base even if the marginal vote is eroded, and his main opponent will struggle to enthuse a base which has so far been offered little of substance. 

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