“Look, it’s that geezer that plays football! Didn’t you see him play football on the telly that time!” Up goes the shout round Smithfield Market as the Mayor of London conducts a Presidential-style walkabout of the City of London’s last remaining working market (by which we mean ‘market full of honest working class blokes selling proper stuff wholesale,’ not market as in, ‘place to buy over-priced tat off students’).
It’s 7am and BoJo is in full meet-and-greet mode. “Morning, morning,” he blusters as he sweeps down the Grand Avenue of the 800-year-old market grabbing the hands of more or less startled bumerees (we’re not casting aspersions, that is what the market porters are actually called). But, unusually, Boris struggles to get a word in.
“Oi! Boris! You were better looking last time I saw you!” shouts one. Boris grins through his good-natured mauling at the hands of Essex’s finest. “I don’t like you, I like Ken!” shouts another.
Then the complaints start. “Since the Congestion Charge started we have to pay to get home. We come to work at 3am and there’s no public transport then so we have to drive. Now the market’s all finished by 7am – cos all the customers want to get off before the Charge – it used to go till noon.” “We’re dying on our feet, Boris.’’ “The place is dead. Let your eyes be your guide, Boris.”
The Mayor pauses briefly before a sign saying ‘BJ Meats’. Market trader humour could have gone to town with that one, but luckily we were soon moving again. “What do you want me to do?” says Boris, addressing the market traders’ call for a Congestion Charge exemption zone. “You want me to make a fortress Smithfield? A kind of Gaza strip? I can’t. I’d love to, but the lawyers tell me it would never stand up in a court of law. Every night worker in London would want the same exception – and there are tens of thousands of them.”
You have to feel sorry for Boris Johnson – everywhere the face of London goes in his crumpled black suit he faces special interest groups pleading their special cases and cheeky buggers shouting out praise, or worse.
“'Oi! Boris! You were better looking last time I saw you!' shouts one. Boris grins through his good-natured mauling at the hands of Essex’s finest. 'I don’t like you, I like Ken!' shouts another.”
Over the world’s largest breakfast in one of the many pubs in the Square Mile we got to ask Boris how the City of London was faring in the midst of the biggest economic uncertainty since World War II, how much he is looking forward to hosting the second square mile Masked Ball, the battle with Ken – and just how serious is he in thinking that London will be ready fully a year before the Olympics in 2012.
How is London, and the City of London, coping with this buggering downturn?
London and the City of London are exceptionally well poised to come through this better than New York or most global financial centres. We’ve still got more people employed in the City in financial services than in New York, and the City is making money again, so providing we don’t make elementary mistakes of bad regulation I think London is very well placed: we’ve got the language, we’ve got the time zone and we’re making incredible investments in transport infrastructure.
Are you against any and all regulation of the financial sector?
I think the Alternative Investment Fund Management Directive is plainly worrying, and has caused some conniption in the City, but the threat has been that there will be more regulation coming down the line that wont be in the interest either of London or of Europe – because these new regulations from Brussels won’t help Frankfurt or Paris, they’ll just drive the banking out of the EU. The new bank tax that they’re bringing in has agreements between France and Germany so we’re not just penalising London. My view is that, in the long-term, this city can’t be expected to be competitive with a top rate tax of 50p and in due course we expect that to come down – but clearly we’re in very difficult circumstances at the moment.
What lessons do you think the City has learned, or not learned, from the credit crunch?
The great thing about the crisis of 2008 was that you had a crazy bubble, a few people got it right and shorted the whole thing and basically the system worked. Well, to say the system worked is an exaggeration because it had to be bailed out in a massive way! But what I mean is that the essentials of the banking system remained alive – and I don’t think you have to abandon the free market because of what happened in 2008. It was a disaster. It was catastrophe. But people and firms are going to need to raise capital somewhere and London is going to be the best place to do it.
So capitalism would seem to be the least worst system?
I think that’s about right. There’s no doubt that… have you read The Big Short by Michael Lewis? You gotta read it, it’s fantastic. I mean it was abominable what was going on. It was sheer greed. They were these Credit Default Swaps and Collateralised Debt Obligations and it was monstrous. It had nothing to do with the interests of real people and the pity of it is the real villains so often don’t pay the price. The people who are responsible for the disaster basically walked out with huge winnings – or a lot of them did. Some were sacked, some were humiliated but most of them got away with it, and the victim is the wider economy. There is no doubt that it was a banker-generated crisis but unfortunately there’s no real way of penalising the banks without cutting off your nose to spite your face – you’ve gotta go on with capitalism.
Were you surprised that there wasn’t more public anger on the streets at the height of the crisis? Was the lack of French-style demonstrations and Greek-style rioting a testament to the British national character?
Don’t forget that it was an unusual crisis in the sense that interest rates remained pretty low and that people in work didn’t suffer as much as all that. The worry now is that government will cut too radically and there is a risk of doing serious damage to London’s prospects through cutting investment in transport.
And you talk about people being restrained but if people can’t get to work because their buses are cut, they’re going to be furious and they’ll be right to be furious. This is a big city full of hard working people – some of them are on very modest incomes – and to face big cuts in their transport subsidy as a result, two years down the line, of appalling behaviour by the banks could yet provoke a great deal of anger. So what I am saying is, don’t think this is over – there could be a good way to go yet.
"The great thing about the crisis of 2008 was that you had a crazy bubble, a few people got it right and shorted the whole thing and basically the system worked."
What do you think of the public sector pay freeze?
I’m in favour of a public sector pay freeze. At City Hall we led the way – we put all our expenses online from the very beginning and we’ve been driving down costs. We’re cutting £500m from the Transport for London budget, £5bn overall till 2017. I will be really enraged if we find that London is expected to bear the same sort of cuts as every other city when we’ve already been at it for two years. It simply would not be reasonable. London is the motor of the UK economy, we cannot have cuts of that order imposed on the working population of this city.
Are you prepared to face up to a Tory Prime Minister?
My message to the government is, don’t over-regulate the banks, don’t slam the stable door and recognise that the banks represent a great London industry. They made terrible mistakes. Some of their executives should be frankly in jail. But we need to recognise our advantage: we need to recognise the huge benefits for the whole of the City that flow from financial services and all the downstream industries it helps: accountancy, law, advertising, the arts for Christ’s sake! Where would London arts be without the City of London? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can just come into London with a meat cleaver: it would not be the right thing for this city, it would not be the right thing for the economy of London – and what is not right for the London economy is not the right thing for the country as a whole, as London drives the country’s economy.
Sounds like you and Cameron are cruising for a bruising.
I am well prepared to make this point to whatever party with ferocity: that you do not cut investment in housing for people on low incomes and investment in London transport and you do not risk the City. You do not risk the safety of people by slashing police numbers. These things are not right for London and I don’t care to whom I make it – it’s a point I would have made to Labour if they’d done the same thing. Negotiation is beginning but I was obviously deeply concerned by the headline figures in the budget. If you cut out the NHS and you cut out defence and overseas spending then you are putting a huge amount of pressure on transport and housing and police. You’re asking them to bear cuts of 30% – and that is just not realistic. That is insane! Insane!
What about getting the bikes for the Barclays Bicycle Hire scheme made in Canada – was that a gaffe?
That’s a ridiculous suggestion. As we were just saying, I’ve got a duty to bear down on expenditure and I’m a free marketeer. I would love to have had the bikes made in London. We make loads of bikes in London, we even export bikes to Holland! In ever-growing numbers! But as regards this particular deal, if you’re the guardian for the public purse you’ve got to go for value.
And that has to weigh heavier than British jobs and British workers?
I will say one thing we are doing, a much more important and much bigger and more historic deal we are doing, is the new bus for London – which will be British technology, made in Britain: a bus designed by Transport for London and for Londoners built in Britain – no monkeying around!
"There is no doubt that it was a banker-generated crisis but unfortunately there’s no real way of penalising the banks without cutting off your nose to spite your face – you’ve gotta go on with capitalism."
Ken? Again? Is this turning into an epic struggle for control of the city. Like Batman versus The Penguin?
I welcome a contest with any Labour candidate. I have to say I’m slightly surprised that so few people have come forward from the Labour Party to stand – it’s the most fantastic job in the world. I’m on for a fight with anybody!
And the coalition? That must have been a nasty shock…
I have to admit that surprised me as I was predicting an overall majority! But… the coalition is fantastic. It’s what everyone wants. In polite London everybody is ecstatic. My parents’ friends love it! Because it means you can vote Tory if you are a member of the soft-left haute bourgeoisie without feeling bad. The Lib Dems have sanitised the Tory party. It’s beautiful! It’s like a beautiful Toyota Prius which is basically running on Tory petrol but every so often it switches silently into clean green Liberal Democrat mode. Though in this case the brakes work… And what we’re trying to do is stop them putting on the brakes too hard to get back to the original point.
And the Olympics?
It’s going to be fantastic!
But do you not think that, economically, it’s a poisoned chalice?
How dare you, Sir!
But look how it bankrupted Greece!
Absolute bollocks! Everything we do is aimed at making this thing deliver long-term legacy for London. It’s going to be a great thing for the city and we’re going to make it work for the London economy as a whole.
So it wont indebt us for decades?
No, we’re on target! We’re on budget. The ODA is doing so well in producing the venue we could have the Olympics a year early! I’m thinking of having it next year! We could steal a march on the rest of the world. Get those medals! Ambush! Call a snap Olympics!
And Danny Boyle is doing the opening ceremony?
Yes he is. That’ll be brilliant… Slumdog Olympics…
Not a Trainspotting Olympics?
Boris: Ha ha ha ha ha… [walks away. Over his shoulder, he mutters] Oh, and when I said the system worked, well, it patently didn’t work. What I meant to say is, “We’re still here.”
From squaremile.com – the lifestyle magazine for the City of London
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