Me ‘N Boris

As we approach the second round of the Conservative leadership contest on Tuesday, Boris’ record is coming under scrutiny. Let me add my own contribution.

I campaigned for Boris in the London mayoral election in 2008, principally due to intense dislike of his opponent Ken Livingstone (later suspended from Labour for alleged antisemitism).   Remember that Boris was a late entrant as the Conservative candidate – no-one of any stature wanted to be the candidate because London was seen as a Labour fiefdom.  But against the odds, Johnson won, helped by a very astute highly disciplined campaign by Lynton Crosby.

By complete coincidence a year later (May 2009) I was offered and accepted a job as an economist at City Hall. It soon became clear to me that the quality of the political appointees Boris had made was very high. As non-political local government appointees, we were not allowed to canvass in the 2012 election inside the building. But Livingstone was again the candidate and Boris had done  a good job – so after work and at weekends I raced to Central Office and hit the phones. He was duly elected for a second term, including the glorious fortnight when London hosted the Olympics.

In January 2013 David Cameron announced that he would hold an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, if the Conservatives won the 2015 election.

London is an international City. 40 per cent of the 250 top global companies have chosen London for their global or regional headquarters (Deloitte, London Futures: London crowned business capital of Europe, 2014).  London lives or dies by its attractiveness for international investors and multinational companies.  Therefore for the Mayor of London to be a Brexit supporter ought to be unthinkable. But in the ensuing months it became clear that in Boris’ scale of priorities, leading the impending ‘Out’ campaign was as important – maybe more so – than banging the drum for London as an international City. As I saw personal ambition beginning to dominate, the scales fell from my eyes.

Boris knew his Brexit manoeuvres would need intellectual support. Despite having worked in Brussels as a journalist, his knowledge of Europe was poor. This was shown by a speech of his that I attended (December 2012 I think), where he said that any single country could call an IGC (an Inter Governmental Conference, necessary to change the EU Treaties) and achieve change hostile to the UK. He was wrong of course. So the same month – December 2012 – Boris hired Gerard Lyons, a eurosceptic economist who had recently left Standard Chartered.

In August 2014 Boris published a clearly political piece by Lyons. It found that the best option for London was to remain in a reformed EU BUT THAT staying in an UNREFORMED EU would be a lot worse. In particular it would be worse than quitting and pursuing open policies. In a speech set around the publication, Boris proclaimed

“I speak to you obviously as a Eurosceptic”.

But worse was to come.  GLA Economics – where I worked for six years from 2009 to 2015 – has a deserved reputation for professionalism and political independence.  That was violated on Boris’ watch. In February 2016 – just four months before the referendum and after Boris had returned to Parliament in the 2015 election – GLA Economics published this study: London: The Global Powerhouse. It mixes objective statistical analysis with advocacy for Brexit. Look at these passages:

(p43) “The UK can only achieve serious reform if it is serious about leaving, and it can only be serious about leaving if it believes this is better than the status quo of staying in an unreformed EU. It is.”

(p20) “remaining in the EU means the UK has effectively no control over its borders”

(p45) “it is clear that the UK has lost the capability to influence the direction of EU institutions since the creation of the euro area and since the signing of the Lisbon Treaty.”

GLA Economics is publicly funded. It was entirely wrong for it to be used as a vehicle for the Brexit campaign. Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaigning should have been kept entirely separate from the research and analysis on London carried out by GLA Economics. Significantly no-one in the GLA protested – and I had left by that time.

By the way in February 2016 a number of commentators said that Boris had gone through an ‘agonising decision‘ in defying David Cameron and coming out for Brexit. That’s nonsense – he had been planning his Brexit campaign for months.

So where are we now?

Boris is the favourite to be the new PM having won 114 votes in the first round versus 43 for Jeremy Hunt, his nearest rival. Boris’ main appeal seems to be that he can win elections. Specifically that he can beat both Farage and Corbyn. But I believe that Boris’ two Mayoral election wins have no implications at all, as regards the next general election. In 2008 Livingstone’s mayoralty was awash with scandal. Every day there was something new in the Standard. In 2012 a different Labour candidate probably would have won it – but the candidate was Livingstone again, a gift for Boris. Neither election is comparable to the one impending in 2022, or earlier.

And Boris is committed to leaving the EU on 31 October even if there is no exit deal. This could precipitate a vote of confidence and there are probably enough Conservatives implacably opposed to ‘No Deal’ to defeat the government. In which case there will be an election and the nightmare could happen – Corbyn as Prime Minister  ………