Busy Doing Nothing

By Jonn Last edited 106 months ago
Busy Doing Nothing

We expected chaos. We expected riots.The one thing we didn't expect, in fact, was that it wouldn't actually change a single thing. But, 15 months, into his reign, that seems to be the critics' dominant narrative: Boris Johnson is the mayor who does nothing.

Boris TV.jpeg
Image courtesy of Scorpions and Centaurs under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

The FT's Philip Stephens was the first to put it into words a few weeks back, when he complained that the Mayor's vision for London was "as fuzzy as it was on the day of the election." Then ConservativeHome's Stephan Shakespeare joined the chorus, arguing that - splendid chap though he may be - Boris has "no notable achievement, no sense that anything important will change, no grip." Just a few days ago, Time Out's Peter Watts suggested that the reason everyone had got so excited by the abolition of the bendy buses was because it was "a rare example of the new Mayor of London actually doing something."

Last week a gaggle of Assembly Members went so far as to pass a motion under the adorably silly heading "Where's the beef," which demanded Boris actually explain what the hell he's playing at. ("There is a danger," concluded John Biggs AM, "that a Mayor who is a media figure and likes to be admired won’t risk upsetting some people by picking the fights that need a heavyweight champion in the ring for London." No shit.)

A quick flick through the list of mayoral achievements goes some way to explaining where this reputation came from. Boris's policies break down rather neatly into the negative (scrapping Livingstone initiatives like the Thames Gateway Bridge or the congestion charge extension) and the tabloid-appeasing (banning drinking on the tube, banging on about knife crime). The one exception is that blasted bendy bus ban, which aims rather higher, and manages to be both negative and tabloid appeasing.

Does this matter? One strain of conservative thought, after all, says that the best reason to acquire power is to stop anyone else using it. (On this front, Will Hutton notes, Boris has been absolutely first class.) But whether or not this works nationally, it's not entirely suited - to put it mildly - to running a city with disfunctional policing, creaking transport and eye wateringly expensive housing.

The mayoralty seems to function best as a bully-pulpit, a platform from which to cajole government and business into investing in London. Ken Livingstone, for all his flaws, instinctively understood this. He couldn't deliver everything he promised; but the things he did deliver came about through sheer force of personality.

Boris has shown little interest in taking this approach. In fact, he's shown little interest in anything, but using the mayoralty as a platform from which to promote brand Boris. So a year in, we find ourselves wondering: what, exactly, is Boris Johnson for?

Last Updated 28 July 2009


"It is as important to occupy power, so denying its use to others, as to do anything constructive with it"

It's in big, blue letters above BoJo's bathroom mirror. Lest he forgets, and actually does something.

David B

Poor show, londonist. Youve already told us your opinion about this, so why are you still ramming your pessimistic bias down our throats? Whats the point of dragging this up again?


Honest answer is that the idea of Boris as a do-nothing Mayor seems to have become received wisdom quite suddenly in recent weeks. That in itself seemed to me worthy of comment. As I said at the top of the post, of all the things I expected of Johnson as Mayor, I didn't expect that.

I'd love to be wrong. I'd love those who point out that Livingstone did very little in his first year to have a fair point. I'd love him to go ahead with the Nash Ramblas plan, or to find some of those lost rivers once again. Should that come to pass, I will quite happily admit I was unutterably wrong.

Until it does, though, I'll settle for standing on the sidelines and throwing rocks, as is my style.