I should start, as all good things related to local government must, with a declaration of interest:
I like Boris Johnson.
Whatever you may think of his shambolic persona or his political views, you have to admit that the man can turn a phrase.
Take his opening gambit to Mayor’s Questions this week, for example:
He dismissed media coverage of the economic crisis as hysteria that would have us believe that “the sky is dark with falling bankers”.
It certainly raised a laugh and had an impact.
Until I read his latest blog post – a copy of his Telegraph column from this week – and found the same pithy phrase nestling in it.
Which, as Carrie Bradshaw might say, “got me to wondering” how far does Boris the Journalist affect Boris the Mayor? And what about the other way round?
Boris the Mayor
As a journalist, Boris understands the power of words.
Watching him from the public gallery at Mayor’s Questions this week, it was easy to see how his linguistic dexterity gives him the upper hand.
He uses clever witticisms as a powerful tool to bat away inconvenient questions with the appearance of nothing more strenuous than a spot of gentle ‘whiff-whaff’.
This allows him to dominate proceedings with outward confidence.
It also gives him license to dress up his facts and policy points in an engaging way; The ‘spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down’, if you like.
The Power of the Soundbite
Crucially, he understands the importance of a soundbite.
Boris Johnson is eminently quotable and, if you are good for a quote, you will get media coverage.
Pretty handy if you happen to be trying to push the interests of a whole city…
This was also something that Boris’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, understood and did well.
However, the fundamental difference between Livingstone and Johnson is one of image.
Livingstone wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to his role as Mayor and this earnestness often translated into an abrasive style when dealing with the press.
Likening a reporter to a ‘concentration camp guard‘ probably didn’t help much either.
Johnson, on the other hand, truly understands the power of ‘image’. In fact, he is possibly one of the most image-savvy politicians in Britain.
Now I realise this may sound like an odd thing to say of a man with a haircut like a haystack and the worst-fitting suits in Westminster but bear with me.
What do we associate with politicians today? Either slick, be-suited and smiling or worthy but dull.
What Boris Johnson has done is to carve out an external image of the anti-politician.
If David Cameron is the slick ‘salesman’ of the Conservative party, Boris is velcro made from tweed.
But it is precisely this carefully-built cover of the ‘affable buffoon’ that allows him to engage his audience and argue his agenda without appearing to preach.
It is politics by stealth.
Boris the Journalist
While Johnson’s journalistic experiences have clearly helped him in his role of Mayor, the outlook doesn’t look so rosy if you turn the tables.
One of the primary functions of a journalist is to hold authority to account.
Boris IS authority now. Real authority: he has the fates of 7 million Londoners in his hands.
His journalism can’t help but be neutered as a result.
I cannot imagine him now writing something so controversial that it would force him to apologise to the entire City of Liverpool. Or the whole country of Papua New Guinea.
Surely his Telegraph column is now no more than a national soapbox from which he can promote London? Or else discuss ‘safe’ subjects on anodyne topics?
Much as I enjoy his writing, is it now time for for Johnson the journalist to put down his pen?