‘The wealth gap has been allowed to get too big.’ Ed Miliband? No, Boris Johnson

The London Mayor on equality, unity and Lynton Crosby

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

Boris Johnson strides into the Uxbridge Conservative Club, asks after the barmaid’s health and sits down beneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Churchill and Harold Macmillan are on the other walls. The room comes from the days when the Conservatives were not just a political party but a huge social network: a natural party of government. Times have changed, however. The Conservatives’ membership has dwindled and the party is in a desperate fight to hold on to power.

But Johnson is full of optimism. He assures everyone that this election is going to have a happy ending. He has a vision for Conservatism, too — one that has already enabled him to win twice in London, traditionally a Labour stronghold, and may be the party’s last best hope of a return to majority politics.

During the 2001 and 2005 elections, he was editor of The Spectator — which he described as being ‘by some margin the best job in London’. So what would he write in the leader column this week if he were still editing? He starts to dictate copy, addressing himself directly to you, the reader. ‘If they want Britain to be a strong independent nation, if they want Britain to lead in Europe, if they want an economy which is dynamic and competitive and is based on the spirit of enterprise, then they should vote Conservative. If they believe in a culture of aspiration and achievement rather than scrounging and trying to pull people down, if they believe in levelling up rather than levelling down, they should vote Conservative. If they believe that it is wrong in principle to try to settle the problems of the economy by decapitating the tall poppies in society, they should vote Conservative.’

Johnson is concerned about more than just protecting tall poppies. ‘If they believe that the job of government is to nurture all the flowers in the flower beds rather than attacking some, then they should vote Conservative. That is the essential difference between us and Labour. Every single policy of Ed Miliband and his lot is precisely calibrated to divide society, to foster a sense of injury and injustice. We want to heal any sense of injury and injustice, to bring society together.’

Such rhetoric would go down a storm at every Conservative club in the country. But Johnson has more. He reveals something ‘that people are not aware of and that goes to the heart of what we are trying to do’, which is that the life-expectancy gap between Kensington and Dagenham is now narrowing. He attributes this to policies pursued both by him at City Hall and by Conservatives in Whitehall. In other words, inequality is narrowing — and that, he says, is the great Conservative mission.

He didn’t always say this sort of thing. Just 18 months ago he was proclaiming that ‘some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.’ Like others in his party, he has revised his arguments. He now fumes that current gap between rich and poor is ‘outrageous. The wealth gap has been allowed to get too big.’ It is an issue he has sought to address by promoting the living wage of £9.15 an hour in London, and £7.85 nationally — both substantially higher than the £6.50 minimum wage.

It’s hard to force companies to pay more than the minimum. But Johnson believes companies that don’t shouldn’t be given government contracts. ‘It’s not reasonable for companies that have chief executives and board members who are paid very considerable sums to subsidise low pay through in-work benefits.’

Isn’t this all a bit left-wing for a Conservative? He thunders back, ‘I don’t care.’ And then: ‘I actually think it’s reasonable for politicians to talk about it and to care about it. Look at the income differentials in any company in London and in Britain, they have massively expanded in the last 30 years. The multiples that we now tolerate are extraordinary.’

Isn’t all this talk about ‘tolerating’ high pay a bit, well, Miliband? Johnson runs his hands through his hair in exasperation before replying, ‘Look, we’re all part of the same ball of wax. We’re all cut from the same cloth, made of the same timber. I do think human beings cannot be faulted for wishing to judge themselves and their lives and their achievements by others around them, that is a natural human feeling.’

This cuts to the heart of the debate taking place at the top of the Conservative party: should the right care about the gap between rich and poor or just whether the poor are better off in real terms or not?

Johnson reaches for another metaphor: ‘I don’t mind people in the sharp end of plane guzzling Château Margaux, if that’s what they want to do. If beloved people that we know want to get on a plane, turn left, ensconce themselves in some ludicrous boudoir where hot towels and free copies of The Spectator are thrust on them every 30 seconds, then let them. It provides jobs. But what people won’t accept is those at the back of the plane finding their inflight meal getting smaller and smaller and their conditions getting more and more cramped.’ His solution to this problem is that ‘as Conservatives, we should be bustling about the plane making sure that everybody feels they are getting a gin and tonic at the right time’.

So David Cameron talks about the ‘good life’, Boris Johnson about gin and tonics. Both are motivated by party political as well as philosophical concerns. The Mayor believes that the wealth gap in London is one of the reasons the Tories struggle there in national elections; even the most optimistic Conservative cabinet ministers concede that they will lose seats in the city next week. Partly this is a result of London’s ethnic mix: around half the capital’s population is non-white. Boris puts the party’s poor performance among ethnic minorities down to a ‘mutual diffidence, the Tories have been insufficiently exuberant in their engagement. We haven’t gone in there and made the case.’ But, he adds, ‘The Conservatives have got to win everywhere. Everywhere. There should be actually no no-go areas. I won a ward in Hackney, I’m proud to say. And Greenwich. Somewhere else too, I can’t remember.’

To win in those places, Boris took a different line from the Conservative position on immigration. Now, he is more guarded. You won’t hear him calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants any more. Instead he uses phrases like ‘welfare scroungers’ when discussing border controls. He talks about the benefits of immigration, especially in regard to those who come to London. ‘How many Brits working in Paris? 16,000. How many French working in London? 400,000. It tells you all you need to know about the difference in dynamism between the two places. But if you want to say, “Hop off, you frogs”, that is not my position.’

He takes a short break to inhale some sandwich and swig his pint before getting back to the case for Conservatism. Given his enthusiasm for the cause, why can’t his party’s campaign instil in voters the kind of excitement that the SNP is generating north of the border? ‘If they are not throbbing with excitement by the end of one of my sermons, if they are not quivering in the aisles, then we are obviously not doing our job,’ he replies. Aren’t the Conservatives, as David Cameron told The Spectator last week, a bit like car mechanics — practical people who fix things rather than excite? Boris neatly goes into reverse, declaring, ‘You’ve got to have a decent mechanic if you want any kind of throb at all in your motor.’

This Conservative election campaign is being run by Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who ran both of Boris’s mayoral campaigns. Johnson begged the Conservatives to pay whatever it took to hire Crosby. They followed his advice, and it is now widely said that the Conservative election campaign has been ineffective. Is that Boris’s fault, as Ed Miliband suggested in their joint TV appearance on Sunday? ‘It’s an effervescent campaign being made ever more sparkling by the Pol Roger of The Spectator’s coverage,’ he says. He defends his friend ‘the Crosbinator’, puts on an Australian accent, and says, ‘Jeez mate. They can stick their head up a dead bear’s bum. Don’t come the raw prawn with me.’

Boris is now so used to talking down his own political ambition that he almost begs not to have go through one of his not-quite-denials. ‘David Cameron is going to be Prime Minister — and all the rest of it,’ he says. We leave it at that. As we all know, it’s possible that, if defeated, Cameron will resign within a fortnight, in which case Boris would be the bookmakers’ favourite to take over. His ambition, when giving interviews nowadays, is to say nothing that encourages such speculation. ‘I hope I haven’t said anything remotely useful,’ he offers, as the interview draws to a close.

He heads to his car, a dented green people-carrier, to drive his team to Enfield to campaign for its Tory incumbent, Nick de Bois. Upon arrival, he clambers on to a Courage beer crate and then belts out a few points to those assembled at the street corner. He relishes the heckling and quickly draws a crowd, including some schoolgirls who want a photo with him. Five minutes after one woman has berated him for the closure of the A&E unit at the local hospital, she comes back to take a selfie with him. The contrast to the controlled environments in which the party leaders have been campaigning is striking.

Next Johnson marches off down the high street. His celebrity trumps the fact that he’s a politician: even the kids sitting in the naughty seats on the top deck of the bus lean out of the window to cheer him.

Whatever the result of this election, we suspect it will have a happy ending for Boris.


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  • Rik

    Ah beautiful Boris a true politician for today,the very best exemplar of cynicism and lust for power.Principles yes i have principles and if you don’t like these i have others.
    All things for all men with so many u-turns it’s no wonder he always has that bewildered expression he must be constantly dizzy.

    • Dogsnob

      He is a very happy man because the nation is drifting inexorably the way he wants it, choose whoever wins ANY of our elections. Not too many to go now Boris.

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        What towards a PM who is Bulgarian aristocrats grandson?

        • Dogsnob

          You are just so out of the loop here. Have a think and try again.

        • Dogsnob

          Only been on two shoots and it’s actually, more fun than I had imagined.

        • BoiledCabbage

          Grouse are way too fast for addled townies. It really should be resricted to Landowners.

        • Verbatim

          Stop it; you’re making me cry.

    • victor67

      Johnson with his mate Gideon has oversaw London becoming the tax haven for the super rich to launder their dirty money.
      He has prostituted London to among others Qatari slave labour drivers.Russian mafia and corrupt Nigerian politicians siefening money out of their country.
      Meanwhile he allows the social cleansing of the poor to make way for the new rich.
      Good job Boris!

      • Lord of the Manor of Tyburn

        That’s a wee bit harsh, you are talking about the future no1 of the Conservative Party here.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          Not harsh at all. He is funded by the Hedge Fund industry, who schmooze him at their clubs and at their vast grouse moors in Scotland and Northumbria. Boris likes nothing better than to slaughter a few hundred little birds up at Allendale on the 30,000 acre private estates of his chums.

          • BoiledCabbage

            “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” Mao Zedong.

          • Verbatim

            You’ve nailed it. The Hydra ought to recognize it with his favourite regime, the Communist party of the USSR.

      • BoiledCabbage

        Go to Uxbridge, Hackney, most of south London, you will see the immigrants and the poor at leisure, in the middle of the day. So much for social cleansing. So much for a work ethic.

  • Dogsnob

    I wonder why the Conservatives’ membership has dwindled and they are in a desperate fight to hold onto power?

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Because they are a cynical bunch of out of touch tossers who do the bidding of the 1%.

      • Dogsnob

        They are indeed. And yet, who to replace them with, who would not be every bit as bad?

      • BoiledCabbage

        The 1% will be voting Green this year. For the new Range Rover paint scheme, that is.

      • Verbatim

        It’s quality you know, Hydra, not QUANTITY.

  • misomiso

    Boris the big winner in this election due to Dave’s lack of engagement.

    But Europe is not going to go away. Hopefully some one at the top of the party will see sense and argue for us leaving the club, then at least we can be united.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      This has already been decided by the Mont Pelerin types, the Davos attendees and the CoLC. Hence Cameron signalling his desire to stand aside.
      The hedgies want Boris now and are arranging for his crowning soon.

      • Verbatim

        Don’t tell me, let me guess. You wear regulation greens, hair tied up in dreadlocks, with a ring through each nostril ON EACH HEAD and with a canvas man bag and sandals. LOL x 1000

  • goodsoldier

    What an boringly expansive article about puffy flibbertigibbet. Are we being oiled for something in the making? Boris’ father gets BBC coverage but UKIP does not. Tonight UKIP will be treated to BBC apartheid. UKIP have been made to seem like untouchables by a corrupt BBC elite and political class. It is quite deliberate because they are very afraid that Nigel Farage will create a domino effect of justice for Britain and Europe, and bring their deceit into the spotlight. The BBC should be abolished, for a start. And Rod Liddle talks about fairness and will vote Labour. He is not a serious man, only a clever coward afraid to be the outsider. The immigrant is not the outsider; UKIP is, thanks to people like Liddle and the media, the career politicians and the BBC who control opinion and fabricate news across the U.K. and the world at our expense.

    • Bob Boothby

      You MUST be kidding. The UKIP are on the Daily Politics (and other shows) every day. In fact, one Suzanne Evans (of the UKIP) was the DP’s main guest the day before Stanley Johnson!

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      UKIP seem to dominate the news I see. This little band of gobby Luddites and timid racists appear to be a media obsession. We should try to ignore them, well done BBC.

      • Gilbert White

        What awful nasty pieces of intolerant people you really are.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          I’m not nasty. Just your enemy. I will stay until you are gone.

          • Verbatim

            You are nasty, Hydra, with a chip on your shoulder the size of the QM2. But that’s your quality-of-life destroying problem, not mine, not ours. We’re all busy working, earning or relaxing.

      • Verbatim

        You wish.

      • Verbatim

        I don’t think they’re timid, exactly.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “A November 2011 article by Rod Liddle in The Spectator about the trial of two individuals involved in the murder of Stephen Lawrence led to a decision to prosecute the magazine for breaching reporting restrictions. A court hearing was held in June 2012, in which The Spectator pleaded guilty to contempt of court and accepted a fine of £5,000 plus costs.”
      Also, a Socialist Workers Party member, CND supporter …
      Isn’t “borrowed time” the expression I’m reaching for?

  • hdb

    The point about Brits in Paris versus French in London mostly shows how appallingly bad the British are at foreign languages. It is nothing to do with the merits of either city (both of them overpriced vortexes sucking jobs and money out of the remainder of their countries).

    • davidshort10

      Paris is just a small town; London is a big city with a huge financial industry which is where the French work. I don’t believe it’s as many as 400,000, though.

  • Precambrian

    It would help if the Conservatives were actually conservative. Can we not sue them under the ’68 Trades Descriptions Act for claiming to be something that they are not?

    As for Alexander Johnson (you are are aware, I hope, that “Boris” is simply a character he plays for the media and their gullible audience) and his speech….

    strong independent nation….lead in Europe….dynamic …. competitive ….enterprise…. aspiration ….achievement ….
    scrounging …. levelling up rather than levelling down…. the tall poppies in society

    I detect the usual diet of NLP, vanity-baiting, and making a virtue of necessity.

  • All hail Britain’s Berlusconi!

    • Verbatim

      He’s just too young and he has had no experience with the Mafia and under-age sex. That’s right up Prince Andrew’s alley.

  • James

    Whilst political parties accept donations from corporations and shareholders we will never have democracy, economic equality and fair society.

  • Snibbo

    From someone who thought the day the unveiling of the Shard was a great day for London, a ceremony he attended with Prince Andrew and the Qatari Prime Minister. Presumably his comrades fighting the wealth gap and Islamic fundamentalism.

  • paul

    A Tory showing compassion and meaning it ?
    Hell would freeze over first.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I would vote UKIP, presupposing I could vote at the up-coming general election. But the only way I could manage that would be to fly to UK, get to the polling station at my former address (where Cameron is the sitting candidate), and then risk being told, “Sorry, but you’re been away from UK for so long that you’ve lost your right to vote.”
    Democracy? You’re having a laugh.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

  • BoiledCabbage

    The wealth gap – too many billionaires, to be sure, but also too many capable people doing nothing. There is an Aristocracy and a Slackocracy.

  • Chamber Pot

    In the recent past massive wealth inequality has been the prelude to an economic crash followed by war. LibConLab have done nothing to prevent this widening gap, which is directly linked to our loss of democracy, corruption, and further integration with the EU. Our politicians have conspired to distract the population by giving them other things to worry about; massive uncontrolled immigration, and ISIS, for example. Both problems they have created. So don’t be fooled by the rhetoric : we are censored, silenced, and bullied into accepting this weird reality. But slowly people are waking up to the fact that our leaders do not consider them to be valued citizens, or themselves as servants of the public, but on the contrary they consider themselves our masters and us as their victims, to be used and abused according to the requirements du jour. It is time to punish them at the ballot box as far as this is still possible in the absence of reliable election monitoring and industrial scale postal vote rigging.

  • Dogsnob

    Oh, it’s something that’s been ‘allowed’ is it?

  • John Farant

    DEAR Boris tells us all about how fixing Britain’s problems cannot be fixed by cutting down the tall poppies then, before he’s downed his G&T in an exclusive club, he gets out his scythe in the form of living wage policies and the like. And the sad thing is that the very people he fancies he’s helping will be hurt the most by high cost government edicts in the market (as if the UK needs MORE of these) and will be decisively “unequal” in not having a job. It’s babbling like that of Johnson that invented UKIP. “Leading in Europe”? How can you lead when Europe already controls and legislates on little things like FOOD? Until the Conservatives actually whole heartedly embrace the values Boris pretends they care about like aspirational Britons and free markets and making the pie bigger with liberal economics rather than using socialism to cut its slices ever more thinner for all of us, the COnservative PArty will never see the “majority” politics that Thatcher gave us with precisely those values. Oh, BTW Boris, if it wasn’t for Thatcher, the leader whose policies you so slyly despise, half of big fat London as you know it would not exist and we’d still be living in the grey 1970’s despond you yourself denounced in a recent article. Trust me, you would not want to be the mayor of London in a world that never saw Thatcher. Mightn’t it be a nice change to have the popular and famous bike rider get off his bike and admit as such?

  • MrJones

    option 1) middle-class economy with lots of people in the middle
    option 2) plantation economy with a few rich and lots of poor

    Which has the higher total demand and higher velocity of money?

    Inequality is a practical issue.