“Welcome to City Hall. This is a recording. When you ask the new Mayor a difficult question, press 1 for the standard answer.”
Hastily, I ask my question and press 1. I await the word:
“Here is the answer to your query. ‘We are delighted by your enthusiasm’. Goodbye.”
Former London Assembly Member Damian Hockney who you would think has far more in common with Boris than Ken, is concerned that the new Mayor’s style and approach might trip him up. He believes his handling of genuine criticism and questioning is wearing thin.
The Mayor might just as well use a recorded message, because I keep hearing a very similar response, or versions of it, eveywhere he pops up. “We are delighted by your enthusiasm” is the essence, scattered around like a mediaeval monarch distributing largess.
On last night’s ITN local news, those were the very words in response to a difficult question. It was used at least five times in Mayor’s Question Time on Wednesday last week. And a version of it was recently used with all the press as a justification for curtailing media access and for downscaling the press conferences.
I went along to Mayor’s Question Time last week full of goodwill (not a phrase you usually hear from anyone, participants or audience). “It’s early days for Boris…only his second MQT…you can’t expect him to have the answers to everything…”
But by the time we had got two hours in, this milk of human kindness was souring to yoghurt. When I was on the London Assembly, we used to accuse the previous Mayor of not taking the body seriously, but the new Mayor seems to have taken this to a new level.
It would not be unfair to say that Labour Assembly Member Joanne McCartney had him on the floor at one point. Now before I receive writs all round, with reference to “curious” and “late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls”, I am talking pugilistic parlance here (as well as tautology).
Imagine a wrestler of the old school like Mick McManus (that’s Joanne McCartney) taking on Dame Barbara Cartland (that’s Boris) and you see where I am coming from.
She simply pointed out that the Mayor’s reply at MQT on the new Routemaster conductors was totally at odds with the reply he gave at the last MQT. And it was a serious point. Are the conductors to be involved with revenue protection/fares etc? One minute is was No of course not, they’ll be helping people on and off with their bags. Next it was “why of course they will”.
Boris’s considered reply when the Mauler raised these inconsistencies? Complete collapse of stout party. It was a classic upper middle class dodge when asked an awkward question. To this and others, the gist of the reply was: “We are just so TERRIBLY delighted that you are all SO interested in all our plans. It’s wonderful.” To say that he lost the sympathy of the crowd at these points is an understatement. It’s the type of reply a polite person of a certain class uses when someone asks how much is in the bank account. Or how much they got when they sold Uncle Alfred’s estate (the whole of Kirkcudbrightshire). It is meant to deflect firmly but politely. But it’s no answer to questions of legitimate public interest.
It is very similar to his response to the media recently when he drastically cut down his availability to them by abandoning the previous Mayor’s weekly press conference. During the time he was in office, the previous Mayor operated the conferences in a way which any journalist could ask questions and follow-up questions and it was very far from stage managed.
When the new Mayor decided to scrap this tradition, he reluctantly introduced a less regular press conference with strict limits and rationing of questions. One of his pieces of rationale to journalists? “I don’t want to trouble you…”. A very similar response really, like the faux fogey style response to Assembly Members. What do you mean by “trouble”, Mayor? That is what journalists are paid for. it is no “trouble”. It is what they are paid for and what we the public expect them to do. It’s “trouble” for journalists to put themselves at risk in Zimbabwe but they still do it. It’s not much “trouble” for them to stumble onto the Jubilee line for 3 stops and pitch out at London Bridge to get to a City Hall press conference. Restricting access and then saying “we’re doing it to help you all” and to save you trouble seems a bit patronising. A naughty move is a naughty move, even if dressed up with a bit of charm and a grin.
Stars of the day at MQT were Dee Doocey, Mike Tuffrey, the aforementioned Mauler McCartney and of course the inevitable John Biggs. They asked questions we all wanted to know the answer to and, unless you were a dyed in the wool Mayor supporter, you drew breath at the responses. It was a sign of what is to come. Without fail thin answers fell back on versions of ‘so glad you care’. Someone needs to tell the Mayor that this is deeply patronising to a group of people who were elected to hold him to account. It might be used with effect and irony on some occasions, but it is not the way to respond to everything from policing to transport.
The Assembly has practically all the cards stacked against it, and the Mayor needs to understand that provided he is properly briefed and has at least a modicum of respect for the Assembly, enough to obtain detailed answers and engage in proper discussion, he will almost always win the day. But if he does not, then I suspect he may have far more difficulties far more quickly than the previous incumbent.
At present, he will get away with it, and Tory AM Richard Tracy made a very useful point when he commented that “navel gazing” over detail of internal politics of City Hall was not what Londoners wanted – they wanted solutions to the real issues. It received a deserved cheer but it is worth remembering that that the solutions as well as the Devil lie in that detail. Without it, we are left floundering in answers like the routemaster one, which vary from month to month. I hope that he and his colleagues are behind the scenes persuading the Mayor to give a little more buckle and a little less swash.
As I was sat right near the former Mayor at MQT, it struck me that the main difference is that he clearly used to seriously prepare for the experience. He may have been dismissive of the Assembly, on occasions to a dangerous degree, but he took the care to have his research properly done and to provide the detail and facts.
The one time he began to take his eye off the ball (over the LDA towards the end of his period of office) was noticed by outsiders in a way it had never been noticed before. He usually took his responses to the Assembly seriously because, irrespective of pesky Assembly Members, his replies were of interest to the wider world and he knew it. But the new Mayor appears to rely upon some fairly standard responses to serious questions and he is in danger of appearing both patronising and out of touch. Very quickly.
And one little thing. “We are delighted by your enthusiasm”. Who is “We”? Is it the royal one – the “We are a grandmother” version? It would be rather decent of you chaps to let us know at some point…