For the fifth year running, Boris Johnson last night faced an audience of ordinary Londoners at the State of London debate.
After a run of identikit events at which Boris delivered largely the same speech, last night’s offered us three firsts for which it’s likely to prove memorable – the first time Boris has faced an openly hostile audience, the first time he’s had to answer to Londoners for planned cuts to fire stations and engines and the first time he’s truly sounded like a civic leader.
Until last night Boris had largely evaded public anger over the fire cuts.
Ever since he used his power to direct the fire authority, Labour have attempted to sell the planned cuts as an end goal personally planned and desired by the Mayor.
As part of their efforts, Labour Assembly Members have called for Boris to appear at the fire consultation meetings but, as he occupies no position on the fire authority, he’s wisely stayed away.
Londoners have not been flocking to the meetings in the numbers some of the Mayor’s critics wanted, my hunch is that the public are less easily scared than Boris’s opponents expected.
But at last night’s State of London there was a vocal crowd who bought the line that the cuts mean less safety, slower response times and greater risk to Londoners.
The result was a lot of booing at Boris, possibly an unprecedented level for a politician who has so far busked along on a wave of popularity and populism.
A few years ago Boris would have faltered under such sustained attacks and jeering, but last night he stuck to his guns and took on his critics.
Speaking over the heckles, he told the audience that fires are down, deaths by fires are down, hoax call-outs are down and they’re all predicted to keep falling.
What he alluded to, but failed to point out in specifics, is that decades of intense lobbying by the London Fire Brigade is partly to play for those decreases.
Fewer people get blindingly drunk, fewer smoke, all sofas are now flame retardant, electrical items are safer than they’ve ever been.
The result is that fewer people fall asleep drunk while smoking, sofa fires don’t accelerate as they used to and electrics suddenly sparking and combusting is the exception, not the rule.
Success in reducing fires means fewer fire engines are attending incidents – at a recent consultation meeting the slide claimed that even at the busiest station, engines respond to emergency calls just 16% of the time.
Perhaps true to form, Boris didn’t get into the nitty gritty of actual statistics but he did at least stay the course and take on his critics.
Despite the planned cuts clearly being unpopular and despite the loud cheers for two fire fighters speaking against them, he loudly and clearly defended his decision to push on with the consultation and sought to reassure those in the room that neither he nor the Fire Commissioner would do anything to put Londoners at risk.
For possibly the first time since he became Mayor, Boris genuinely impressed me and both looked and sounded like the sort of leader London deserves – one prepared to take tough decisions and, more importantly, defend them.
But there’s one decision that I hope he won’t defend and that’s the decision by the big strapping men who make up so much of his team to leave Victoria Borwick, Deputy Mayor for London, alone to deal with a crowd of about 50 attendees who all wanted tell someone, preferably Boris, about their particular gripe in spectacular detail.
Throughout the night Boris told people to see named members of his team afterwards, but unless they moved with the speed and agility of Usain Bolt they had no chance of doing so.
As the final applause lifted the roof and Boris left the stage, the majority of the Mayoral team raced for the door.
Borwick was left with no obvious staff support, an insufficient number of business cards and only her charm and patience with which to fend off the crowd.
A finely dressed man I assumed to be Mr Borwick pitched in, my assumption being that he wanted to whisk his good lady back home for a well deserved supper and glass of something nice.
I later discovered that he was in fact the father of Boris aide Richard Blakeway, pitching in out of a sense of decency having seen how much demand there was for Borwick’s attention.
And a harassed looking Blakeway himself finally emerged from beneath a pile of anxious Londoners, clutching wads of paper and promising someone would get back to them.
When one attendee questioned whether Borwick would really get in touch, I was press-ganged into vouching for the goodness of her word.
Now, I know that some of the Mayor’s team believe in small government and others may still charmingly believe in Cameron’s Big Society concept where people volunteer for the jobs we used to pay professionals to do, but surely it wasn’t necessary to invoke both beliefs in the same night and leave a £16bn Government to be represented by an under-appreciated deputy and someone’s dad?
Boris owes Borwick both a word of thanks and a word of apology for the way she was left in the lurch.
He also needs to wash his mouth out for uttering the dreadful phrase ‘Statutory deputy mayor’, a form of words which makes his hard working deputy sound like some troublesome legal necessity, like a fire blanket in the kitchen of a greasy spoon.
The 1999 GLA Act clearly refers to the Deputy Mayor of London, it’s about time Boris did likewise.