Boris Johnson has been far too quiet of late and it’s created room for political opponents, would-be successors and even disloyal officials to diminish his record, ignore his achievements and, in some cases, even bend the truth.
As Labour’s hastily lengthened mayoral selection has progressed, a number of mayoral hopefuls have repeatedly solicited applause and accolades for promising things which are already being done.
Sadiq Khan’s pledge to make City Hall contractors pay the London Living Wage and Tessa Jowell’s vow to make all Met officers wear body cameras are good examples of this.
Other candidates – see David Lammy’s policy to freeze travelcard costs without acknowledging the role of the train operators in setting prices – are promising things which can’t be done or which ignore the need to reach agreement with outside agencies.
Normally in a British election we’d have an incumbent seeking re-election who had a clear interest in pointing these things out.
At the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Mayoral contests City Hall officials and the incumbent mayor’s campaigns ensured critics and rivals were challenged when they made ill-informed and potentially misleading announcements.
But this time round there’s a notable lack of records being set straight.
Where in 2012 Boris repeatedly harried and challenged Ken Livingstone over his pledge to cut fares, Labour and Tory candidates have largely – save a single intervention from TfL – been allowed free reign.
Would-be successors are getting away with criticising Boris’s annual fares increases without being asked which bits of the transport network he shouldn’t have expanded or upgraded over the past four years.
Candidate Boris would almost certainly have asked whether rivals would have preferred not to (belatedly) address dangerous road junctions or expand the number of carriages on the London Overground, DLR and tram in order to limit or eliminate increases.
But Mayor Boris has stayed quiet and – wrongly and foolishly – allowed the debate over fares to be conducted without any reference to the consequences of TfL raising less money.
A few months ago one of Boris’s aides told me that successors in and out of the Conservative party needed space to develop their policy offers and so the Mayor would seek to avoid repeatedly commenting on their announcements.
It’s certainly true that Boris needs to make space in the debate for whoever the Conservatives pick as their candidate, but for the next eight months he remains the city’s leader and so has a duty to speak up, put the record straight and challenge the more egregious claims and policies that are doing the rounds.
He also needs to come down on those officials who suddenly look desperate to distance themselves from his administration and policies.
Today London Assembly member Darren Johnson called on Boris’s eventual successor to commission an “independent audit” of the Mayor’s ‘New Routemaster’ bus.
Some in TfL have long suspected that an incoming Labour Mayor would indeed use the bus’s questionable green credentials and high cost to scrape away some of the sheen from Boris’s term of office, which may be why the organisation’s Leon Daniels used yesterday’s appearance before the London Assembly to lay all responsibility for the bus at the Mayor’s door.
Time and again he referred to the vehicle being a Mayoral commitment and when questioned by Green party AM Jenny Jones about the availability of cheaper and cleaner vehicles, replied that “sadly we’re dealing with the Mayor’s desire” for the New Routemasters.
‘We only did what Boris told us to’ was the message he seemed keen to get across.
But while it’s true that as officials their job is to do as they’re told, there’s never previously been any sign that TfL bosses were anything less than in love with their new toy.
If they really only keep buying the vehicle because Boris wants them, why wait until he has one foot out the door to say so? Why not mention it when they asked the board for approval to buy 200 more?
Why not require the Mayor to issue them a direction and so place their concerns on the public record? It’s what other civil servants have done.
There’s a suspicion that if Boris were running again officials would keep their newly voiced reservations and doubts to themselves until after the election and, if he won, for another 4 years beyond that. Some even think they would never have discovered those reservations in the first place.
Instead they seem to be using the closing months of Boris’s mayoralty to create the space for them to nod along should the future mayor drop the bus and denounce it as a poor investment.
The job of officials in any administration is to serve the incumbent, not cosy up to possible successors in an effort to dampen the culpability they might have for a policy or initiative that’s suddenly fallen out of favour.
But, returning to my opening remarks, Boris has freed up the space for this public disloyalty by being far too quiet for much of the summer and creating the impression that his desk is already emptied.
For the next eight months he needs to point out when those who seek to follow him are spouting nonsense and ensure that officials know he still has plenty of ideas and policies for London’s future. Otherwise his mayoralty and legacy will fade under a mountain of poor policy pledges and disloyal briefings.
Those who voted for him and those who’ve worked alongside him deserve more than that.