In Whitehall and Westminster, new thinking seems to have slowed to a trickle, with both big national political parties transfixed by the global financial crisis and defaulting to their timeworn left-right positions. Last month's Queen's Speech, in which the monarch traditionally outlines the government's entire legislative program for the coming year, amounted to a meager 683 words. Yet downriver from Britain's ancient centers of power, a very different picture is emerging. Under the leadership of one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, city hall has become something of an idea factory, humming with all kinds of innovation.
Untethered by political pressure to solve Britain's economic problems, and unrestrained by the strict left-right divide of national politics, Boris Johnson, 44, has been left free to experiment with his trademark reckless abandon. Since taking office as mayor eight months ago, he has displayed a deft populist touch by banning alcohol consumption on public transport and increasing the London "living wage" to $11.17 per hour (nearly 35 percent higher than the national figure). More than that, though, his office is brimming with ideas that could win him popularity in London and widen his appeal nationwide. Aside from pushing projects like cycling "superhighways" and community gardens, his administration is studying, for instance, a U.S.-style amnesty program for the estimated 350,000 illegal immigrants living in London; a $7.25 billion plan to build 50,000 affordable homes and get middle-income families on the property ladder; putting 440 "safety" officers on London buses; running the tube later into the evening on weekends; instituting bike- rental programs like the kind already successful in other European cities; and investing $87 million to renovate empty properties.
He has also rather deliberately staked out positions that do not toe the line drawn by his fellow Tory, opposition leader David Cameron. For instance, Johnson, like Cameron, is opposed to proposed plans for construction of a third runway at Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport. But while environmentally conscious Conservatives favor improving Britain's railway network to reduce domestic air traffic, Johnson favors construction of a vast new airport in the Thames estuary, far from central London.
But it is still very much an open question whether Johnson can win this particular battle—or, indeed, follow through on any of his ideas. Though he has modeled himself in part after Michael Bloomberg, New York's politically independent mayor, as a pragmatist who rises above partisan politics, his powers are not those of a classic "big city" mayor. His revenue-raising powers are limited. He has planning authority over London's vast public-transportation system, for instance, but while he can raise fares and impose special fees, he has no authority to impose or raise taxes. As a consequence, the sole connective tissue providing coherence to Johnson's ideas sometimes seems to be that they happen to be Johnson's ideas.
While he may succeed in capturing the public's imagination and attention, he remains a moderate Tory at heart. He will have to make tangible changes and real progress in London in order to be seen, like Bloomberg, as a political figure of substance. He is counting on the fact that the mayor's office can become a bully pulpit for new ideas and the very public face for one of the world's most important and diverse cities. "Insofar as we're able to do new things and good things in city hall," says Johnson, "it's because we have a huge popular mandate."
Not even a decade old, the mayor's office is still appealingly adolescent in its enthusiasm for new, even bold ideas. In 2000 Ken Livingstone became the first directly elected mayor of London in its 1,000-year history. Outspoken and controversial—he cozied up to Venezuela's leftist, anti-American president, Hugo Chávez, with whom he negotiated a favorable oil-price deal for London buses (a deal that Johnson has canned)—he also worked tirelessly, and used his global connections, to help bring the 2012 Olympics to London. Against widespread criticism, he tackled the capital's chronic traffic snarls with an expensive but innovative and ultimately successful congestion-charging plan for motorists. Johnson, his successor, is also an iconoclast with a knack for controversy. Educated in Brussels, at Eton College and then at Oxford, where he studied classics, he gravitated to journalism after a brief stint as a management consultant. In the sort of two-steps-forward, one-step-backward progression that has typified his life, Johnson went to work for The Times of London and was promptly sacked for making up a quote from his own godfather.
Undaunted, he climbed the journalism ladder and in 1999 became editor of The Spectator, burnishing his Tory credentials, widening his circle of influence and eventually winning a seat in Parliament, in 2001, to represent the posh London suburb of Henley. He rose to become shadow minister for the arts, but was forced out of the job for allegedly lying about an extramarital affair (the accusations were "an inverted pyramid of piffle," he said). But he bounced back again and ran for mayor of London, promising to make it a greener city and to clean up the corruption and cronyism that he said had insinuated themselves into Livingstone's government. Defying the predictions of most pundits and pollsters, he won, by a margin of 8 percent.
A city hall inhabited by someone like Johnson was never going to be boring, and indeed it crackles with the same spirit of wackiness-cum-unpredictability that has blessed, and cursed, Johnson's earlier incarnations. What's endearing to some—showing up at the Olympic handover ceremony in Beijing last summer looking disheveled, hands in pockets, jacket unbuttoned—is irksome to others, such as his Chinese hosts. He publicly endorsed Barack Obama for president—something no leading Tory or Labour pol in Britain could do for fear of breaching diplomatic protocol. Johnson, after all, is a man who doesn't do low-key; he not only speaks but thinks in italics, exclamation marks and capital letters, and he combines the omnivorous curiosity of a natural journalist with the erudition of a scholar who in December presented a BBC television documentary, "After Rome," on the impact of Islam on the world. No surprise, then, that Johnson's early months in office have been marked by no small amount of chaos, including the resignations of four of his senior advisers.
Johnson is as cunning politically as he is colorful personally. Much more than Livingstone, he wants to turn city hall into an alternate base of national political power. At the national level, British political leaders are creatures of their parties: elected in small constituencies by mere thousands of voters, they attain real power—like becoming party leader—by being chosen by their fellow M.P.s. Thus, the directly elected mayor of London automatically has the biggest mandate of any British political figure. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was re-elected as M.P. in 2005 because 24,000 Scots in Kirkcaldy voted for him; 1.2 million Londoners voted for Johnson. A four-year term at city hall, therefore, is a perfectly plausible launchpad to much higher office.
While it will take several years for Londoners, much less the public outside London, to come to a firm judgment about Johnson's tenure, the timing could work in his favor. His next move, if his political stars were in proper alignment, would be to succeed the 42-year-old Cameron as Tory leader, putting himself on track to be prime minister someday.
Sometime between now and June 2010 there will be a general election. Johnson will be watching from the relatively safe confines of city hall. If the Tories win, Cameron will presumably become prime minister; if they lose, Cameron could well be forced out as leader. Either way, Johnson will be seen as a rival to Cameron's presumed successor, George Osborne, 37. Osborne, Cameron's friend, ally and de facto deputy, is now shadow chancellor, and has been faulted for his lackluster performance during the financial crisis. Though there are no camps of supporters massing in public at this point, Johnson, along with former party leader William Hague, 47, tops the list of likely contenders to the leadership.
A busy mayor, of course, has no time for such crass thoughts. Asked if after one or two four-years terms in city hall he might stand again for Parliament, as he would have to do to position himself for the party leadership, Johnson arches his eyebrows and says he recognizes a "trap" question. "If I feel I've got something to say and something to offer and there were things that I could really, plausibly do, then of course I'd give it a thought," he says. "But at the moment, I have to tell you, this particular job is so all-engrossing, so demanding, it gluts the appetite for power. My cup runneth over." Of course it does. Or is that just another one of those inverted pyramids of piffle?
With Saleha Mohsin