Confessions of a Political Animal

September 29, 2008

Boris’ dog whistle?

I have a problem with Boris Johnson. What’s that? You’d worked that out already? Well done; have a coconut, or something.

No, apart from all the other problems I have with our Mayor, my problem is that sometimes I can’t work out if he’s being serious or flippant, or if he is being flippant if there is something deeper behind the flippancy. Sometimes I’m convinced that Boris himself is a bit in the dark about this as well. Therefore, what follows could be entirely the ravings of a paranoid mind.

When the BBC News webteam puts an item in the ‘Also in the News’ section in the margin of their front page, I’ve always understood this as saying something like ‘Yup, there’s a hell of a lot of depressing stuff over there on the main body of the page, but here’s a quirky story about a pet mongoose saving its family from a fire to cheer up your day’. So, when they put in an article headlined Mayor Boris terminates ‘cyborg’ Arnie, the editorial staff must have thought the story was in that league.

I guess everyone knows the background to this story. At last year’s Tory conference, California Governor Schwarzenegger was overheard via video link describing Boris Johnson’s platform performance as ‘fumbling all over the place.’ As far as I remember, there was no comment on this at the time from Boris Johnson, yet it would appear from the Mayor’s speech yesterday that he did indeed feel a little pique:

And it was a low moment, my friends, to have my speaking style denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg. But I can say now to Arnie that in spite of all his doubts and though there was a great deal of suspense until the final reel, Ken Livingstone was terminated.

All the usual sort of Boris ‘humour’ that I find a bit primary school, but which the Tory faithful lap up. But is there something else behind this segment of the speech than simply a rather clumsy way to bring in the Terminator pay-off line about Ken? Why specifically choose to lay in to Schwarzenegger, however playfully?

Governor Schwarzenegger is, in many respects a perfect Cameronite conservative. Contrary to expectations prior to his election, and some of his earlier actions as Governor, Schwarzenegger has proved himself to be firmly attached to the liberal wing of the Republican Party. Certainly, he has adopted a pretty repressive approach to many issues of law and order, such as opposing Proposition 66 which would have limited the ‘three strikes’ law to those guilty of at least one violent or serious crime and continued support for the death penalty.

But gone is the Schwarzenegger who vetoed same sex partnerships in San Fransisco, to be replaced by a supporter of the state’s recent legalisation of gay and lesbian marriage. Mandating balanced budgets, as the Governor has done, is firmly in line with the Conservatives’ proposal for an office of budget responsibility, but Schwarzenegger has generally not gone down a slash and burn road in regard to public spending. But it is of course on the subject of climate change that Schwarzenegger has proven, to near universal surprise, to be one of the US politician most keen to take radical action – including launching plans to reduce California’s carbon emissions to 20% of their 1990 level by 2050. In a turn-up few could have predicted, environmentalists would often mention the names of Schwarzenegger and Livingstone in the same breath when talking about the small numbers of mainstream politicians committed to making climate change a key part of their policy platforms. In taking this stance, the Governor has inevitably alienated himself from many in his own party, including the current President and the ‘drill, baby, drill’ chanting advocates of Sarah Palin. All very Cameron.

So am I reading too much into Boris’ belittling of Schwarzenegger when I think it might, just might, be a coded dog-whistle to sections of the party that we can be pretty sure he one day wants to lead? After all, for a right-wing British politician to describe a two times-election winning, right-wing governor as ‘monosylabic’ and a ‘cyborg’ seems a bit off, references to past employ aside. It is very easy to find rumblings, particularly at ConservativeHome or over at Iain Dale’s blog, which suggest that not all Tories are happy with Cameron’s apparent wholesale adoption of the climate change agenda. There are no shortage of self proclaimed sceptics in the ranks. And for them, Schwarzenegger must surely be considered the worst kind of traitor, cosying up with the likes of Gore and Clinton.

In mocking Schwarzenegger, is there a coded message from Johnson? ‘Yes, chaps, I have to play this game too, but I’m no true believer. I don’t see California as a model for a Tory-run Britain.’ After all, Boris’ actions on climate change since coming to power haven’t exactly suggested a great commitment to the issue – he stood down as Chair of the Livingstone-created C40 grouping of major cities (aimed at promoting joint action on greenhouse emissions); cancelled the GLA’s hydrogen vehicle procurement programme and dumping the £25 emissions-based congestion charge. His only significant act on climate change has been to publish the (Livingstone-era) Climate Change Adaption Strategy, which is in any case a reactive, rather than proactive strategy.

At some point there is going to have to be a showdown between Johnson and the Conservative Party on this battleground. Ostensibly, with both sides saying that they are against a third runway at Heathrow, they are singing from the same hymn-sheet. But today’s announcement from Theresa Villiers which places a firmly environmental slant on the party’s opposition to the third runway and promotes high-speed rail as an alternative (see here for why I think, from a pro-rail point of view, that this is the wrong priority), is at odds with Boris’ position. This, after all, is the Mayor who is busy promoting his deputy’s fantasy island airport scheme in the Thames Estuary – which was originally to replace Heathrow and is now, as I understand these rather confused matters, to supplement it. No sign of an ideological commitment to reducing airport capacity there. And given that the Tory’s plan for a high speed railway includes a link to Heathrow, there doesn’t seem to be any expectation at Central Office that the west London airport will be disappearing any time soon, if they are going to throw billions of pounds at a rail link for it.

Is this the start of a new Boris positioning strategy – the king over the water – on whom the Conservative Party’s answer to the moose shooting brigade can pin their hopes for a true blue revival? Knowing how well he can be all things to all men, is Johnson looking into the medium future and considering what problems may beset a Cameron government and how his personal ambition can benefit from them?

Such speculation aside, a couple of other little snippets are worth noting from the Mayor’s speech (sadly the text doesn’t seem to be online anywhere). We’ll leave aside his spirited and courageous (in the Sir Humphrey sense of the word) defence of the financial sector for now, but I noticed from this report in The Times that Boris

claimed that by the time London hosted the 2012 Olympics there would be a new fleet of Routemaster buses.

Presumably by ‘fleet’ he means one or at most two prototypes, which is what people who actually know about the timescales of designing and constructing a bespoke bus say is possible by mid-2012, according to Dave Hill.

[Also by the time of the Olympics] air-conditioning [will be in place] on 40 per cent of underground trains.

Yes, it will – and this is likely to be one of the first of many outings of the ‘fool most of the people most of the time’ strategies from Johnson. After all, we wouldn’t want to mention that said air-conditioned were ordered in 2006 by a former Mayor whose name has temporarily slipped my mind. Or that his own contribution to this scheme amounts to posing for photos in a mock-up carriage at Euston (although Boris’ll be pleased to see that half of the commentators in the linked Evening Standard story had suffered the same memory slip about who ordered the trains as he did). So, for those of you who like to know what the Mayor will be up to in advance, a couple of dates for your diary:

Late 2008: Mayor to congratulate his predecessorhimself on procuring new trains for London Overground services.

Early 2009: Mayor to congratulate his predecessor himself on building DLR extension to Woolwich.

October 2009: Mayor to congratulate his predecessor himself on providing three-car DLR trainsbetween Bank and Lewisham.

June 2010: Mayor to congratulate his predecessor himself on completion of East London line extension.

Mid 2010: Mayor to congratulate his predecessor himself on completion of DLR extension to Stratford International.

August 2012: Mayor to congratulate his predecessor himself on bringing the Olympics to London. (Please note: this engagement is subject to cancellation or alteration in the event of unforeseen electoral circumstances)


  1. […] of the job of Mayor seems to boil down to running bus design competitions for 11 year olds and passing off your predecessor’s achievements as your own. So what’s a Mayor with greater political ambitions to do? The answer is quite simply: keep […]

    Pingback by Boris: Racism ends in 13 days, official « Confessions of a Political Animal — October 22, 2008 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  2. […] whilst we’re on the subject of Boris Johnson and Westfield, I made some predictions a month ago about the completion of which transport projects ordered and paid for by Ken […]

    Pingback by Is this the most ridiculous Boris quote of all time? « Confessions of a Political Animal — October 30, 2008 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

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