One of the most disturbing moments of this week’s referendum events for anyone with an inkling of knowledge about the Garden Bridge was at the end of the BBC Question Time live debate when the audience gave Boris Johnson a standing ovation, whooping wildly. Regardless of your views of the vote or the many issues around it, for those of us who understand the history of Boris Johnson lying, ‘sandpapering’ the truth, setting up deals for his friends and generally acting with total contempt for Londoners and those he was elected to represent it was an odd, and sobering, to see that the cult of Boris is live and kicking.
The reasons for his political success and buoyancy are not hugely dissimilar to the history of the Garden Bridge, and perhaps it’s not surprising as he has been one of the key figures in helping the development stutter along to the place it has got to thus far – he is, after all, quite skilled at keeping a neat facade to conceal behaviours and actions which are less than savoury.
Back in 2012 Johnson gave a speech in which he said Britain must “stay in the EU and argue its case” and added “if we get to this [referendum], I would be well up for trying to make the positive case for some of the good things that have come from the single market”. After the speech he was asked “Would you like to be Prime Minister?”, and he replied “Being mayor of [London] is a fantastic thing to do” and that being PM was unlikely. But that wasn’t the question, and Johnson has got as far as he has by not answering questions – just as the Oversight Committee members of the GLA have discovered while investigating him and TfL over the Garden Bridge.
Between then and now he has gone on record many times being pro-Europe and defending the importance of the relationship to London and Britain, including in October 2013 saying “I’m probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.” These are all widely reported elsewhere and not the purpose of this blogpost other than pointing out how Johnson covers all bases then at the time of making a decision takes the path which suits him personally.
Which he did on 16th March this year when, after deliberately holding his cards back a few hours after the last leading politicians had declared purely to allow time for the journalists to gather around him like mosquitos and to capitalise on his moment in the spotlight, he left his Islington home to make his announcement in the centre of a crowd of snapping photographers and biting journos. Followed up with an article in the Telegraph – a writing gig he got a handsome £274k a year for and somehow managed to keep up while he was supposed to be running London – he stood on the pavement and said “I’ve made my decision”.
It must have just been made just as he passed through the front door on his way out as he had also written a second article for the Telegraph as an alternative option, one persuasively arguing to stay in Europe, to support his party and leader and is said to told one person he met, “I’m veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”. Perhaps, in that instance, an odd person to lead a campaign delivered with such little nuance or depth of conversation…
But, so it was that Johnson, son of a Member of European Parliament and descendant from a long line of worldly ancestry, stood outside his house amongst the press and said he was positioning himself as Leave to help get Britain “a better deal and save some money”, saying “we can get a better deal” with the EU. So it seems his ‘veering shopping trolley’ which just fell to the Leave side at the last moment was never really in danger of heading towards the door marked “Leave”. Until, that is, his ego got the better of him and he got sucked into doing exactly what he said he wouldn’t do – tv debates, interviews, sharing platforms with certain other Leavers.
Unable to hold himself back from being in the spotlight as he intended and unable to step away from the photo opportunity, waving a pasty or invoking Hitler, he let his personal ambition take over to the detriment of what his beliefs were, what he had always said was best for those he represented or what was best for the democratic discussion which was needed. He had intended to play his hand, then sit back and see the Tory party unravel, ready to step up at the last to unite the party and save the day. Anna Soubry was right when she said that Johnson never expected this to happen and is now has no idea what to do. She said:
“My anger with Boris is that I don’t honestly believe that he believed what he was saying to people, because, you know in all the newspaper columns that he has ever written, he has never said ‘l’m for Out’, and he positively told people – people like Nicholas Soames – ‘I’m no Outer’, and when I confronted him with all of this, all he’ll ever say to me is ‘It’ll be all right, it will all be all right’. And do you know what I think? I think he didn’t think that they would win. That’s why it was all going to be all right, but for his own interests – wanting to be prime minister – he went for Leave, because it would serve him in his leadership ambitions.”
“He’s not really into politics to make your life better. He’s certainly not in politics to make my life better. Boris Johnson is in politics to make Boris Johnson’s life better. First, last and always… He’s made a decision based entirely on personal ambition.”
Over the last couple of years those fighting the Garden Bridge – whether they be local community, activists, politicians – have come to experience Johnson as he is, and have frequently been on the end of his abuse – he’s called us ‘demented’ and ‘taliban-like’. He constantly spent Mayors’ Question Time avoiding answers and sometimes leaving his written replies and Freedom of Information requests for months before offering the measliest response, if at all. Journalists trying to unearth the Garden Bridge truths have struggled to pull truth from the depths which he has buried facts and information which should have been open and transparent from day one.
Then there are questions over his respect for the job and Londoners. Was the Mayoral gig just an opportunity for him to get some national coverage and bide his time until he could find an angle to get the top job? One has to question his commitment to London, not ever quite dedicating all his working hours to the city while he juggled other responsibilities such as speaking, journalism, being an MP and more. And it’s not like the Garden Bridge was just a small commitment of his time and energies, the promise of a legacy for his friend Joanna Lumley evidently took up time that could have been better spent. For instance, the day after the soldier Lee Rigby was stabbed to death in Woolwich, Johnson decided (£) to attend Garden Bridge meetings instead of deal with the unfolding story.
So, those of us who have followed the Garden Bridge don’t expect integrity from Johnson. This is a man, after all, who has fathered a love-child and had three extra-marital affairs, oversaw the publishing of an article stating Liverpudlians wallowing in their “victim status” and blamed their supporters for the Hillsborough disaster, is racist, is homophobic, is a fan of eugenics, lies to his boss, stayed on holiday while London rioted and supplies a convicted fraudster with an address of someone to be given “a couple of black eyes and a cracked rib.
It’s worth watching this car-crash interview from 2013, when presenter Eddie Mair says to Johnson (at 10m 16secs) “You’re a nasty pice of work, aren’t you?” before stating “but even Conrad Black, your friend, convicted fraudster, even he says he doesn’t trust you completely.”
His former Telegraph editor, Max Hastings, has known Johnson for many years so it’s worth listening when he says: “Boris Johnson [is only interested in] the exaltation of himself. This does not much matter when he is only mayor of London, but would make him a wretched prime minister. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect, save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion. Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st century could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still.”
But that his past career (as well as one of his ongoing ones) is in journalism is key to his political rise, and the Garden Bridge too – he still has friends across influential press and that helps when you want to present an image rather than have questions asked. Despite having been sacked from the Times for lying in 2002, Hastings took him to the Telegraph as European correspondent, and it’s worth reading the words of Martin Fletcher, who held the same post a few years later, writing about the formative reporting of Europe in which Johnson created the language and approach repeated for the decades since. How he exaggerated, made up and pushed an agenda far removed from professional journalistic integrity.
Those contacts in media have been useful for Johnson in pushing both the Garden Bridge, and his own, image. We all know about the informal blind-support of the Evening Standard and its owner Evgeny Lebedev to the Garden Bridge Trust (remember, he claims to be a “governor of the scheme” while also taking Johnson on holidays in Umbria). But there are also the media connections of Clare Foges who worked on Johnson’s first mayoral campaign before becoming David Cameron’s speechwriter and then onto her current job as the Garden Bridge Trust’s communications board member. There is also Roland Rudd, Chair of the Communications Board of the Garden Bridge Trust and PR guru who is incredibly chummy with the ITV’s Robert Peston and former client of David Cameron and the Evening Standard.
As a child, Johnson said he wanted to be “the world king” when he grew up. (If he grows up?) He was certainly given the entitled education, membership of the Bullingdon Club and a position in the chumocracy to take that career path too. But has he used that power for good, with empathy and grace, with generosity and openness? No. Nick Cohen sums it up well in a Guardian article, saying “Johnson’s career has seen him embrace the worst of every profession he has entered: the worst of journalistic mendacity, the worst of celebrity entitlement, and the worst of political ambition without political purpose.”
These are three things we have witnessed in the sorry tale of the Garden Bridge, and it is important that it serves as a warning for how Johnson may seek to treat the whole country if the warnings are not heeded.
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