Last week the London Assembly’s People’s Question Time in Haringey saw a certain blonde bombshell met with boos and heckles both when he entered on stage and throughout the proceedings. Instead of laughing at his jokes and being bowled over by his ebullient style, many in the audience treated him with derision and contempt. Had you known nothing of him, you’d find it hard to believe that this was Boris Johnson, Mayor of London. The man deemed the most popular politician in the UK and someone frequently touted as a future leader of the Conservative Party.
It’s true that Haringey isn’t traditionally a place where you’d expect to find much Conservative support. The borough has been Labour run since 1971 and no Conservative candidate has won a local government election here since 1998. So Johnson’s unpopularity here should be expected, no?
But the palpable sense of anger with which he was greeted represents more than simply an anti-Tory feeling in the borough. It’s indicative of the fact that many Londoners are still struggling, and are yet to feel the fruits of the country’s burgeoning economic recovery. Much like the Chancellor’s efforts to present Britain as a country that is once again walking tall, Johnson tried to convince the audience that London is in a golden age. But it seems that for many, these words were nothing more than empty rhetoric. For whether the audience was asking questions about the economy, housing, transport or policing, the impression many gave was of feeling betrayed by a Mayor who, as one audience member put it, thinks it “more important to make London attractive to foreign investors” than to help many in the capital who are struggling.
Disaffection ranged far and wide: there were those who raised the issue of zero hours contracts and low pay, of homelessness, and of course numerous disgruntled taxi drivers who heckled Johnson for failing to address their concerns about Uber. Housing was also a key issue, probably the biggest concern for the audience, which is unsurprising - rental prices in Haringey are rising faster than anywhere else in North London and the average rent is predicted to rise from £962 a month (October 2011) to £1,606.23 by October 2016.
Issues of affordability, rent and the supply of housing were all mentioned, and in turn, Johnson’s response was to talk up the many new affordable homes being built each year. It’s true that he’s set to deliver over 100,000 affordable homes over his two terms in office. But cheaper social rent homes have also more than halved in the last four years under his watch. Then there’s the sticky issue of what is meant by affordable rent, which can be as high as 80 per cent of local rent prices. When market rent is sky high in London - having risen on average by 15.3 percent since 2011 – this is simply not affordable for many people. Johnson can trumpet all the new builds he likes, but its no wonder audience members accused him of being “out of touch”.
Similarly, when people expressed concerns about pollution, traffic, air quality and rising smog levels Johnson made little effort to engage with their questions. Instead he parroted out the answer that London has never been greener, that air quality is improving, and there are plans to plant thousands of trees to cover the city in a canopy of leaves. All the while omitting the fact that high levels of air pollution in London prompted warnings from Public Health England just this week.
Of course the frosty reception Johnson received probably won’t be giving him too many sleepless nights. After all, he’ll almost certainly be returning to the Commons after May 7th as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and from there, the possibilities for his rise in the Conservative party are endless.
But this incident is instructive as a reminder. Although he has many adoring fans, and it can often seem that he’s a Teflon man, there are those who see through Johnson’s blustering and flustering buffoonery. There are also many who feel failed by an out of touch and part-time Mayor who, like many of his private-schooled, Oxbridge educated counterparts in Parliament, appears to care more for protecting the interests of the wealthy than the less fortunate in society. So, before hailing Johnson as the messiah who can revive the Conservative Party, let’s just remember that he isn’t some Olympian God, but just another cunning politician trying to climb the greasy pole.