Regular readers may recall my jibes at Boris Johnson’s recent habit of arriving late for Mayor’s Question Time and long-running complaints about his conduct towards female Assembly Members.
So let me start my report of today’s session by acknowledging both that the Mayor managed to arrive on time and that he was especially statesmanlike and gallant in sticking up for Labour AM Joanne McCartney.
McCartney, like several other AMs, sits on the Metropolitan Police Authority. Asking about police numbers she was accused – wrongly – by Tory AM James Cleverly of basing her question on “privileged information”.
Withdrawing the claim in the face of corrections from Assembly Chair Dee Doocey, Cleverly went on to question whether MPA members should use any insight they glean in that capacity to question the Mayor.
Mindful perhaps of past comments about his treatment of female AMs, Boris wasted no time in defending McCartney’s right to ask questions especially, he said, as responsibility for scrutinising the Met would soon fall to the Assembly.
But as the headline signals, Boris wasn’t only punctual and gallant – visitors to City Hall were treated to yet another sighting of Red Boris. So red in fact was Boris today that predecessor Ken Livingstone, sitting once more in the public gallery, looked pale and colourless by comparison.
In light of coalition comments on tackling benefit fraud, Labour’s Len Duvall wanted to know if Boris agreed that tax evasion and avoidance were equally serious issues. Red Boris had no hesitation in agreeing and said everyone – even banks – should pay their taxes.
Boris then claimed tax evasion cost London £7bn every year – almost equal to “the entire” transport budget – and he’s so concerned that he thinks AMs should investigate the issue and publish a report so he can show ministers just how seriously London’s government takes the issue.
Boris also revealed that he’d heroically fought off Treasury demands (presumably led by the nasty Danny Alexander) to cut transport concession for older and younger Londoners, ensuring that transport remained accessible and affordable for those deserving groups.
The next manifestation of Red Boris came when the Mayor slapped down Tory AM Tony Arbour who appeared to suggest that Housing Benefit claimants made little contribution to society.
By anyone’s measure Arbour sits on the right of the City Hall Tory spectrum – after the meeting one colleague wondered what century he was speaking from – and for Red Boris the comments fell far beyond anything he considered acceptable.
Arbour’s mean spirited remarks prompted a vigorous – but perhaps not Stalingrad-like – defence of London’s diversity. Arbour got to hear how proud Boris was that rich and poor can live side by side in London and had to sit quietly as Boris explained that Housing Benefit played a part in making this possible.
So worked up was Boris that he even repeated his past warnings of “social cleansing”, seemingly confident that David Cameron would be too busy fending off questions from Harriet Harman to hear him this time.
On Housing Benefit reform Boris suggested he was on the cusp of securing special measures for London to protect the most needy. We all wish him well but someone needs to tell him that his flagship proposal of paying HB direct to landlords used to be an option and was never found, as he insists it will, to lead to lower rents.
There was a short but equally sharp slapping down for Tory AM Gareth Bacon who Boris told he had no plans at all to review free staff and spouse travel for TfL workers and there was an uncomfortable shuffling in the Tory ranks as the Mayor declined to commit himself not to increase the GLA’s council tax precept.
Boris’s problem is he might need the cash to keep police numbers “at or around” current levels – the most specific undertaking he’d give on the issue of officer numbers.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Mayor further upset his party colleagues when he made clear his lack of enthusiasm for Local Enterprise Partnerships, a mechanism which sees redevelopment carried out by borough partnerships with businesses.
Instead of devolving redevelopment powers, Boris has a grand vision of stitching together whatever he can salvage from the London Development Agency with the London Homes and Communities Agency to form a London-wide development agency which he can direct to spend money in the areas he thinks its needed on those policies he thinks are important.
To those of use who have been hanging around City Hall longer than Boris, this sounds rather like the doomed LDA when it was treated like a “Mayoral cheque book” by not-so Red Ken. Then Boris arrived, poured criticism all over the Agency, commissioned an unhelpful report and convinced Ministers it had no worth and few friends, so allowing them to close it down.
Apparently now aware of the harm he’s caused, Boris is rushing around trying to construct himself a new toy to play with in case he’s at City Hall after 2012. Although Labour AMs are uncertain how supportive they want to be in this, City Hall LibDems say they’re willing to help Boris out and lend their support to his efforts.
That’s not the only help the LibDems are happy to provide. Kindly Mike Tuffrey is treating the sessions as Mayor’s Education Time and has taken to guiding Boris not only through his questions but through answers he (Tuffrey) already knows.
The result is reminiscent of a patient teacher guiding an under-motivated pupil through a not very challenging equation. Boris probably saw a lot of this at school.
Still, with Tory AMs clearly unhappy with his apparent flirting with socialism and the coalition doing all it can to hamper his re-election prospects, Boris is probably grateful for help wherever he finds it.