Boris Johnson’s early days as mayor: ‘It was total, total chaos’

After rapidly losing three advisers, the ship was eventually steadied largely thanks to those around him

Boris Johnson had been mayor of London for 115 days when the rest of the world got its first glimpse of the idiosyncratic charms that had helped him bag the job. After shambling, his blazer unbuttoned, into the Birds Nest stadium in Beijing for the handover ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, he inexpertly flapped the official flag of the Games for a few seconds, half-heartedly punched the air and then put his hands in his pockets.

Later that evening, Londons new and unusual mayor (New York Times) would declare to a gathering of tipsy Britons and utterly baffled Chinese that wiff-waff [was] coming home, concluding a display that led the paper, in a roundup of unofficial medallists, to award him least reassuring performance in a transitional role. The subtext of this and much of the other international coverage was clear: this was the man Londoners had chosen to run their city?

Back home, plenty were asking the same question. Within weeks of taking up his new role, the mayor had been forced to fire his director of strategy over an offensive remark, and then one of his deputy mayors, Ray Lewis, over alleged financial improprieties (which he denied) and an embellished CV.

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Days before Johnson left for Beijing, Tim Parker, a businessman who had been appointed as first deputy mayor to oversee the running of Transport for London, the Metropolitan police and more, had also departed.

Despite an election campaign that, under the direction of Lynton Crosby, had been efficient and focused, many of Johnsons backers and perhaps even he had never fully expected to win. His fledgling administration, made up of hurried appointments and a back-of-the-envelope management structure, had to scramble to get up to speed.

Quick guide

About this series

The real Boris Johnson

Over the course of the week, the Guardian is publishing a series of news reports, features and multimedia components on the man widely expected to be the next Conservative leader and therefore prime minister. In coverage that ranges from his early days as a journalist to his last senior job as foreign secretary, we will seek to shed light on the exploits, ambitions and values of one of the most consequential and most divisive politicians of the age.

Andrew Boff, a Conservative London assembly member, said: The first year was dreadful. We had some terrible problems. A third deputy mayor, Ian Clement, resigned the following year and was later convicted over expenses irregularities. A former Tory insider said: It was total, total chaos he upset everyone.

But under the quietly efficient stewardship of the former Conservative council leaders Sir Simon Milton and later Sir Edward Lister as chiefs of staff, the ship was gradually steadied. The mayor could get on with the job of deciding what he wanted his mayoralty to achieve.

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City Hall is not Downing Street, and the challenge confronting the next prime minister dwarfs anything faced by other recent holders of the post, let alone a London mayor. But there are surely lessons from the eight years Johnson spent in City Hall that could hint at his working style as prime minister the first being that, having appointed Lister to lead his transition to government, it is clear he wants to avoid repeating the early dysfunction of 2008.

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Boris Johnson’s failed vanity projects as London mayor video

Some Johnson supporters would like him to replicate his mayoralty as prime minister. Kulveer Ranger, who was his transport policy director, said: Boris has said himself he wants to govern the country as he governed London.

His style, Ranger said, is to build up a very strong team around him. He doesnt like confrontations. He likes to have consensus [but if there isnt one] he takes a decision. The Boris bubble, he added, is a fantastic place to be its hugely exciting.

Guto Harri, recruited spontaneously by Johnson as his communications director after the former BBC journalist called his old Oxford University friend about something else two days before the May 2008 election, acknowledged the early months looked chaotic, but said Johnson took greater control with every departure, and the more he took charge, the more focused and determined we became, and the more we got done.

Among other priorities, Harri said, Johnson focused on cutting what he saw as the wasteful spending of his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, including slashing the size of the party that had originally been due to fly to Beijing, and opting for economy class flights.

But others who worked for, alongside or actively against him as mayor are less beguiled by the prospect of Johnson as prime minister. Jenny Jones, a deputy mayor under Livingstone who was a London assembly member during Johnsons tenure, said: A lot of us like him because he is charming and funny, and good to have a cup of coffee with, but none of us trust him.

And even people who work for him get very edgy when you say things like that because they mostly agree. He is a charming companion, but you couldnt trust him to feed your cat if you were away one evening.

At mayors question time, Lady Jones said, Johnson would come in straight off his bicycle, drop his helmet, then his bag, and somebody would bring him a cup of coffee. And you always got the feeling he hadnt read his papers.

Not reading his briefs is a repeated criticism by opponents, political allies and even members of Johnsons mayoral campaign teams, but one former senior colleague insisted he was incredibly hardworking and diligent but it seems sometimes that he doesnt want people to know he is that person.

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Johnson
Johnson talks to a volunteer cleaning up damage from riots in 2011 in Battersea, south-west London. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat London assembly member, said: In his first term, he used to constantly quote Latin at us. Im intellectually superior I think thats his general approach. Im above everything so I can do what I like.

In 2012, Jennette Arnold, the chair of the London assembly, wrote to Johnson on behalf of female assembly members who felt the mayor treated them in a disrespectful, patronising way at meetings and in a manner that you do not display when dealing with male AMs.

Among the examples listed were Johnson repeatedly calling female colleagues dear, accusing one of chuntering on and describing the question of another as blah blah blah blah fishcakes. Johnson denied sexism.

But it was not only political opponents who were riled. Boff said: He hates being held to account we [the Conservative group] werent sycophants to Boris, and he hated that. He looked thoroughly hurt whenever we would challenge him, as if he had been stabbed in the back. But he got terribly intemperate when challenged, and he does have a temper on him.

Tory critics questioning the number of skyscrapers he waved through despite promises to the contrary, or the deal Johnson signed off on the Olympic Stadium, saddling taxpayers with huge liabilities for decades to come, were referred to as the pass posse by the mayors team.

And when riots broke out in the capital in August 2011, he badly misjudged the public mood. Johnson had been on holiday in Canada with his family when the unrest began and initially refused to return (he later told colleagues his wife, Marina Wheeler, was too short to drive their rented Winnebago).

When he finally made an appearance in south-west London three days later, he was heckled by residents shouting: Where were the police? and We want Ken Livingstone. He later defied advice to authorise the purchase of secondhand water cannon that were not licensed for use in the UK.

Boff, who believes Johnson was a good mayor, on the whole, said: Boris at his best is quite impressive. But Boris at his worst is where he suddenly gets interested and distracted by something bright and shiny.

Boris
Johnson rides the Emirates air line, a cable car over the Thames in the Docklands that is not frequently used. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

And it is those shiny, personally driven projects about which Johnson was so enthusiastic that have arguably come to define his mayoralty, despite some achievements for which even his political foes give him credit, such as pushing through segregated cycle lanes and delivering the bike-hire scheme that had been developed under Livingstone. Johnson claims to have halved the capitals murder rate, reduced knife crime and cut poverty, but these achievements are disputed.

Where Livingstone bequeathed the Oyster card, the congestion charging zone and the Olympics, Johnsons legacy includes a 60m cable car across post-industrial east London that serves little transport purpose, new Routemaster buses bought for 300m that had to be expensively retrofitted because they became unbearably hot, and the 6m Orbit tower and slide, commissioned in a flap by Johnson when he felt the Olympic site needed something extra and was costing taxpayers 10,000 a week by the end of his mayoralty.

A scheme to build an airport on an island in the Thames estuary cost more than 5m in feasibility studies but came to nothing, while the garden bridge, an idea suggested by his friend Joanna Lumley, cost 43m of public money without a brick being laid. Asked if he had any regrets, Johnson whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article said he would have built it faster.

With that scheme finally cancelled, his Routemasters no longer in production owing to cost, his water cannon sold for scrap last year at a huge loss and his cable car being used by four commuters a week, Johnsons legacy is looking increasingly slight. So what did he actually want to achieve as mayor?

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Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, who has closely observed successive mayors and advised Johnson on transport policy, said: The ambition is to be in the office. Im not sure that once in office, his goal is for well-thought-out objectives and policies.

And yet, said Travers, it is instructive to remember the lamentable expectations of Johnson in 2008. So the fact that the tube kept going, that there were police on the streets, meant he appeared to do much better than expectations. That could easily happen again, he said.

When you become mayor of London or prime minister, huge numbers of people actually run things. In a curious way, the more he is subjected to criticism now, the more he will be seen to do well.

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