Four years ago, I was invited to a meeting with Boris Johnson. It’s fair to say that my hopes were not high as I rode the lift to the ninth floor at City Hall.
I had just completed a demanding year chairing the monthly
Mayor’s Question Time, during which we often had our differences.
I think you have been admirably even handed – perhaps too
even handed was how he opened the conversation. He then went on to offer me
the fantastic opportunity to be his Statutory Deputy for the remainder of his
term of office. This included the possibility of filling his role, should he
leave office before the election – in effect I was to be the Spare Mayor.
Boris doesn’t hold personal grudges, as he demonstrated that day. In the following twelve months, I learned much more about him.
Mayors of London stamp their personalities on the culture at
City Hall. Ken Livingstone created a bureaucracy motivated by power and fear. Staff
were reluctant to be seen even talking to political opponents and during the
2008 election they were encouraged to believe that victory for Boris would see
them all out of a job.
In the event, only a few people left City Hall and they did
so at their own insistence. Nobody was pushed out and the culture quickly became
much more positive. If Ken had been about Fear, Boris was about Optimism. In
the eight years of his rule at the GLA there was never a shortage of applicants
to join the organisation and be part of the vibrant, outward looking, world
city that we were building.
An early example was the 2012 Olympics. We had been openly
critical as the costs piled up but Boris would have no more of that Gloomadon
Popping as he described it.
We weren’t seriously going to stop the athletes at Heathrow
and tell them it was all off. So we had to make it a dazzling success, despite
our budget being dwarfed by the giant Beijing extravaganza four years earlier.
It was brilliant, showcasing London to the rest of the
world. Many people, across the political spectrum, contributed but Boris set
the tone – he even got a cheer from the stadium crowd where other politicians
fared less well.
The same outward looking, optimistic vision is what Brexit
now demands. We are going to leave the EU, so let’s do it with a spring in our
step and an eye on our future. The establishment foot dragging and longing
backward glances must end now – they should have ended in June 2016.
Boris is a strategic thinker, he wants to see the big picture when he takes decisions. I soon learned to brief him in five minutes, a useful discipline that really made me think about my subject matter and come to terms with it before offering an opinion. That approach wouldn’t go down well in parts of the Foreign Office and the EU – where the longer you speak and the more you write, the more important you think you are.
Cameron and Blair were not great on detail either, but they
were good leaders.
Conversely, both Gordon Brown and Theresa May were obsessed with detail, sometimes to the extent of not trusting their ministers to do their jobs without constant interference and second guessing. Details freaks do not always make good Prime ministers.
Boris appointed a team who were great on detail and on delivering policy. The late, and much missed, Sir Simon Milton joined us from Westminster and was instrumental in creating a City Hall administration that was effective and got results. He was succeeded by the equally effective Sir Edward Lister who came to us from Wandsworth Council, a beacon of Conservative success in local government.
Some of his best lieutenants have followed Boris into Parliament where they have carved out strong reputations. James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse should find key roles in a Boris administration and a return for Sir Edward Lister would be a wise move.
Members voting for Boris will also be voting for an
outstanding management team.
The Left like to paint Boris as a hard right winger, yet I
always found him open minded and enthusiastic to learn new ideas. This
enthusiasm led him to work with Kit Malthouse on diversifying London’s economy
beyond an over reliance on financial services.
In eight years, we helped to develop exciting tech hubs,
with the largest based in Shoreditch and around the Old Street roundabout, a
district that had been looking tired and left behind.
We also worked on a life sciences hub at Kings Cross and a
creativity hub based in Hackney Wick. Boris had an upbeat vision for London
that sadly is not shared by his Labour successor.
The 2016 Brexit vote was also a cry for help from regions of
the UK that feel left behind and threatened by the forces of globalisation – as
Shoreditch and Kings Cross were for many years.
Too often, change is celebrated for no good reason. It needs
to be harnessed and used to make peoples’ lives happier and more prosperous.
Our country desperately needs such an optimistic vision. Not
every goal can be achieved – but surely we can make the effort.
Regardless of who we choose as Leader, inevitably we must eventually
face a General Election and we need to be prepared. Corbyn’s Labour Party is a
deeply unappealing prospect and we owe it to the country to offer a more
attractive alternative vision.
Boris is the only candidate who can stem the loss of our
traditional supporters to the Brexit Party. At the same time, he has a proven
ability to reach beyond narrow party loyalties and gain backing from Labour and
Lib Dem voters.
Winning London in 2008 was a huge challenge and keeping it
in 2012 was even more of an uphill struggle. We weren’t helped by the
government unveiling Osborne’s infamous Omnishambles Budget right in the middle
of the campaign. Nevertheless, we prevailed against the odds.
To win London, a Conservative must appeal to traditional
supporters and to political opponents. Only Boris could walk that tightrope all
the way to the end.
I have seen what Boris can do at his best, and I believe
that with the right team around him, he can do it again. That is why he will
have my support.