Boris Johnson was a couple of minutes into his opening speech at Hammersmith Town Hall last night when the heckling started in earnest. Naturally, he didn’t miss a beat. “We have cut council tax!” he thundered over the dissent before singling out his loudest critic: “Yes, in real terms, sir, we have cut your council tax – assuming you pay it!”
The audience rewarded him with a gale of laughter. This was the clown prince of political theatre they’d come to see. The occasion was People’s Question Time and the evening was at once not about the elections in May and wholly about them. These events are held twice yearly, but the timing of this one, coming just days after Boris unveiled his “Nine point plan for a Greater London”, meant it was bound to become a debate about re-election. They are attended not just by the Mayor of London but by the Assembly Members who represent constituencies across the city and who will also be contesting their seats on 3 May. The truth was, the majority of them didn’t utter a single word from the stage all evening. This was all about Boris.
The first talking point was crime, on which he was bullish. “I would feel safe walking anywhere in London at any time,” Boris told us to audible snorts of derision, but he was applauded for his claim that on his watch crime has dropped 10% and that the murder rate is at its lowest since 1978. “You can’t juke the murder stats,” he pointed out. “After all, with modern DNA technology it’s very hard to hide the bodies.”
Last August’s riots were noticeable by their absence from Boris’ opening speech. When asked from the floor whether he now accepted that closing youth clubs had been a mistake, and whether he’d be reopening them, he answered that Olympic legacy money was intended to be spent on “sports clubs”. Youth clubs and sports clubs are clearly not the same thing and this sounded a lot like an Olympic-branded sledgehammer being wielded in response to every problem. The value of falling crime rates shouldn’t be downplayed, but claims of better community policing ring hollow when the city has so recently experienced widespread rioting.
Housing and development was by far the noisiest issue of the night. The development of Shepherd’s Bush Market, the plans to build high speed rail tunnels and the proposed “super sewers” for the Thames all caused noisy and frustrated debates as Boris failed to deliver straight answers. The closest he came was towards the end of the evening: “You cannot sterilise London. There are things that have to be done.” He repeated his promise to create 200,000 jobs, which is some target. By way of comparison, employment in his current term has seen a total net rise of around 45,000 jobs.
Affordable housing will be one of the key debates at the election. Much time will doubtless be devoted to investigating how accurate Boris’ claim is that he’s on course to meet his target of building 50,000 affordable houses during his time as Mayor – a goal he’s already shifted from being attainable after three years. Lib Dem Assembly Member Mike Tuffrey argued that he’ll miss his targets and in any case accused him of a poverty of ambition when it comes to housing. Tuffrey believes there is both land and private investment available to create social housing in the hundreds of thousands, as evidenced by the bidding on the Olympic village housing. What we won’t get is any big promises from Boris. On housing London could do with some new thinking – The Mayor has the power to do much more to prosecute rogue landlords and innovative ideas like Shelter’s Homes For London campaign (which proposes a TfL style agency to look after London’s housing) deserve to be listened to.
While Boris had been heckled and booed throughout the night, he was applauded and cheered in roughly equal measure. When the meeting ended he was mobbed by adoring fans seeking handshakes, photos and autographs. Boris always looks like a political superstar when given a open question with which to grandstand, and even the Assembly Member Jenny Jones, who will run against him as the Green candidate for Mayor, conceded that he’s good at ideas. What tends to happen she argued, with ideas like mentoring young people, is that they see their funding cut before they can come to fruition. With two months to go until the Mayoral election the battle lines – on crime, employment, housing and transport – are being drawn, and the people in Hammersmith last night seemed split between those delighted by the Mayor’s performance and those restless over his figures, particularly on jobs and houses created. Boris is always comfortable dispatching hecklers, but it’s going to be the numbers that count.
Originally published by British GQ.