Is Boris Johnson’s HR strategy going to go horribly, laughably wrong again?
Brian Coleman, London Assembly member for Barnet & Camden is famous for many things. Post-humously outing Ted Heath; running up taxi bills nearly as high as all the other Assembly members combined – at least twice; branding one of the universities in his constituency as ‘crap’; being banned from driving for six months and, perhaps most shamefully of all, being described as a hero by Richard Littlejohn.
For the past eight years, London has had the joy of seeing the delectable Mr Coleman ensconced as chair of the Assembly in alternate years, thanks to a grubby little deal with the Liberal Democrat group. As constant oppositionalists, the remaining rump of the Lib Dem Assembly group quickly deserted Brian once Boris descended upon City Hall, suddenly becoming more than happy to support Labour’s (successful) nominee for chair, Jennette Arnold. Luckily for our Brian, Boris had a consolation prize in store – because Coleman collects titles, honorifics, non-jobs and ceremonial bling like the worst kind of tin-pot dictator. However, this was no non-job, but the chairmanship of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA), one of the GLA’s four functional bodies. This despite the fact that last year Coleman voted against paying fire station cleaners the London Living Wage – it is unclear how this fits with Boris’ new-found enthusiasm for proper pay.
Anyone with the most passing of acquaintanceswith Mr Coleman’s record could have worked out that appointing him to a position of authority was something of a hostage to fortune. It was cruelly speculated that the almost equally gaffe-prone Boris appointed Coleman only to ensure he looked good by comparison. The surprise is, surely, that it has taken so long for a gaffe to emerge.
But now was as good a time as any. Brian Coleman doesn’t like the Olympics (they involve spending money) and he doesn’t like China. So, if the Olympics are being held in Beijing…you do the math. Last week, Brian Coleman’s column in the Barnet local paper (strangely, he doesn’t seem to write one for the Camden local press) had the subtle headline ‘Relief that two weeks of so-called sport is finished’ (scan courtesy of the excellent Boriswatch). Below are some of the choicer quotes:
“It seems to me that many of the so-called sports are nothing of the sort. Synchronised diving is hardly an occupation for a grown man, although 14 year-old boys can play at it. And BMX biking is no more an Olympic event than skateboarding or disco dancing.”
“Britain’s athletes must remember that [their medals]…are tainted with the blood of Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners and Roman Catholic priests.”
“If you are looking for young heroes and role models, forget the highly paid athletes who leave their consciences at passport control.”
“As the representative for the host city for 2012 Boris was forced to go to Beijing to collect the Olympic flag: I would have told the International Olympic Committee to put it in the post.”
OK, so its all roundly insulting to Britain’s highly successful Olympic athletes. It pedals what is by all accounts a significant untruth – that the Mayor was in some way forced to attend Beijing. Who does Coleman suggest did the forcing? The IOC? The CCP? Or just those communist-lovers at Tory Central Office? By implication, Coleman is suggesting that the Mayor and British athletes should have boycotted the Beijing games. It is unclear how, as an uber-Thatcherite, he would square this with his heroine’s well-known and steadfast rejection of sanctions against South Africa for the human rights abuses under the apartheid regime. The ‘blood on the hands’ thing is nothing new – at the declaration of his resultin the 2008 elections, he accused his Labour opponent, the then Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron, of having the blood of Tibetans on her hand for having carried the Olympic torch.
This is all high politics however, well beyond the scope of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. However, what is clear from the article is that Coleman genuinely hates the Olympics, wishes London had not won the bid and sees the Olympic movement as politically discredited. The only problem is – planning for the Olympics is a key part of what LFEPA should be doing over the next four years. The London Fire Brigade’s 2008-11 London Safety Planlists preparation for the Olympics as part of their strategic aims for the period, as well as lobbying for extra funding for the Brigade’s role in supporting the Games. I would not for one moment suggest that Coleman is callous or uncaring enough about the safety of Londoners or visitors to the city to want to seek to undermine the safety of the Games. What I do wonder, is whether we can be certain that under his chairmanship, overseeing and directing planning for 2012 will be given the appropriate level of priority and focus by LFEPA. If Coleman goes, it should not simply be because his comments are highly offensive, politically unbecoming and in part untrue, but also because they cast significant doubt over his suitability for the role the Mayor has appointed him to.
To date, there is no sign of Boris moving against Coleman, beyond describing the article as ‘preposterous’ and ‘offensive’. In any other administration, this would make Coleman’s position untenable. But the Mayor can’t lose a fifth senior appointment – and with the borough politicians having the upper hand at City Hall since Tim Parker’s departure, he can’t antagonise the Simon Milton faction by removing one of their own (although admittedly, Coleman is the embarrassing aunt who sits in the corner shouting obscenities, rather than a close family member for the Tory borough mafia).
What will be interesting is whether the Assembly moves against Coleman. All senior mayoral appointments are now, under the Greater London Authority Act 2007, subject to an Assembly confirmation hearing. To date, these have largely been pointless affairs, with appointments waved through regardless of how distasteful the individual’s politics are to the Assembly’s Lab-Lib Dem-Green majority. In a executive mayoralty, however, this is how it should probably be, with the Assembly respecting the rights of the Mayor to appoint those sympathetic to his agenda. Whilst Coleman was passed by the confirmation hearings committee, he had the dubious honour of being written to by the committee asking that he read the minutes of the meeting and reflect on the concerns expressed over the style and manner with which he had dealt with colleagues and members of staff. Reading the minutes, it is evident that the concerns in reality went even further than that and that this was not an appointment many Assembly members were happy about. Whilst there is little of real muscle that the Assembly can do against Coleman, he could be called for questioning.
I think it is unlikely that Coleman will go over this, but his card must now be firmly marked on City Hall’s 8th floor.
One final plea. In his article, Coleman says that “If the 2012 Games come in at the current budget of £9.3 billion, I will happily walk naked down Ballards Lane.” On behalf of all Londoners, can I please ask LOCOG to ensure that the Games come in at at least 1p in excess of that figure in order to spare us all that terrifying sight. It can come out of my council tax, if you like…