Slogans of urban progress flashed up on the screen in front of us. A largely silver-haired crowd filed into the hall. But something didn’t quite feel right.
We were in Bexleyheath School, where Boris Johnson was to hold an event called Talk London. Yet, looking around, London was probably a distant concept in many people’s minds. This is country where people still write “Kent” on their addresses. Boasting of Sikh festivals in Trafalgar Square, volunteer corps and Skyrides through the West End sits strangely in DA6, which only seems to assume a London identity whenever a crime takes place.
The idea behind Talk London is for ordinary Londoners to quiz the mayor. They can do that at People’s Question Times anyway, but these extra events give Boris the chance to spread his message. In Bexleyheath, he was joined by the Conservative leader of Bexley Council, Teresa O’Neill, while the meeting was chaired by the local Conservative assembly member, James Cleverly. Somehow, you could see why he came to Bexleyheath and not, say, Woolwich. Also on the panel was Ray Lewis, the mayor’s “mentoring ambassador” for youth, and a local special constable.
The panellists strode on stage and introduced themselves, and Boris gave everyone a rambling version of one of his Daily Telegraph columns. Like all the best comics, he looks like he’s making it all up as he’s going along, but I’m reliably informed he delivered a gag about exporting cakes to Paris two years ago in Brixton. “…And we’ve exported Piers Morgan to America!”
The contradiction between extolling the virtues of the city when you’re trying to appeal to people who’ve rejected urban life soon shone through. “In a city, you live longer than you would do in a village,” he declared, losing his audience for a rare moment before explaining he wanted to return London to being 150-odd villages, and encouraging people to travel around them as they would in villages, on foot and by bike. Try telling that to someone trying to find a corner shop among the sprawling semis of Barnehurst.
The cycle hire scheme was brought up – even though the nearest hire station has to be 12 miles away; and Crossrail was declared a triumph for Bexley borough, even though it’ll terminate just short of its border at Abbey Wood. Even Teresa O’Neill winced at that moment – her council had campaigned for it to be extended into the borough itself.
If the mayor was looking for an easy ride, though, he wasn’t going to get it. The first question asked why he’d broken a campaign promise and relinquished the chairmanship of the Metropolitan Police Authority. “Kit Malthouse is an excellent chair, and I saw no reason not to delegate to him.”
“Can we have a proper answer please, Mister Mayor?”
After some bluster, the mayor said his decision was nothing to do with the conviction of his deputy Ian Clement for fraud – a touchy subject around these parts, since the now embittered Clement used to run Bexley Council.
Generally, though, the questions were mostly about crime – and the fear of youth crime – and parking and traffic problems. Pretty much bullseye issues for suburbs like this. The mayor identified “a lack of risk and excitement” in young men’s lives for much of the problems, and proposed rugby as a solution. “If you have two hours of getting your head kicked in at rugby each week, there’s no way you’ll commit crime.”
The school head chipped in with his own suggestion – blocking young people’s access to Facebook. “It stops fights on Mondays.” He got the biggest round of applause of the night.
Unfortunately, somebody allowed London Assembly member Richard Barnbrook, who now claims to have moved to the borough after being ejected by voters in Barking, into the meeting. Barnbrook, who didn’t identify himself, won applause after asking a rambling question about youth crime, referring to “the unfortunate murder of a black person in Welling” and claiming somebody had been stabbed at the recent Danson Festival.
Teresa O’Neill rightly slapped the unshaven ex-BNP member down for trying to spread malicious rumours – he’s got form for this – but tellingly, she only received a gentle round of clapping for setting the record straight. Playing to prejudices still wins friends around these parts.
Also not identifying himself was a dapper chap at the end of our row who asked a question congratulating Boris on scrapping the Thames Gateway Bridge, and condemning Ken Livingstone for promising to revisit the idea. That’s because the questioner was Conservative London Assembly member Gareth Bacon, quietly planting the opportunity for Boris to pledge to build a third Blackwall crossing, to enable the people of Bexley to drive across the Thames and make Greenwich suffer the consequences. What Boris didn’t say was that TfL hasn’t entirely killed off the bridge scheme yet – but hey, there’s an election coming next year.
There was more backscratching to come, when Teresa O’Neill was asked why she pays Bexley’s chief executive £208,000 a year. The mayor tried to answer the question on her behalf, before O’Neill declared that Will Tuckley had transformed the council from being “where’s Bexley?” to “what are Bexley saying?” to more heckles.
Later, a full-blown row broke out as a pugnacious RMT taxi drivers’ rep challenged the mayor on what he was doing to stop unlicensed minicabs touting for business in the West End – the rep accusing the mayor of not accepting TfL’s own figures, the mayor getting ratty with the rep. The bonhomie slipped, and you could see how uncomfortable the mayor gets when his statements get challenged.
On the whole, it was a better night when talking about local matters. Problems with buses linking Bexley with Kent – and Kent’s reluctance to cough up to boost them – got an airing. Road humps were declared beyond the pale, with Teresa O’Neill blaming them on the evil Ken.
But on the whole, it was unclear quite what Boris could offer Bexleyheath other than some warm words and funny jokes. He talked lots about getting young people into training and apprenticeships (youth crime again) – but nobody was there with any personal experience of any of this. The mayor talked up safer neighbourhood teams – even as they’re now having their sergeants cut across London.
A question about pensioner poverty was answered with a boast about the extension of the Freedom Pass to 24 hours a day – but nobody pointed out that extension isn’t valid on the local Southeastern trains. In some ways, Boris may as well have been the mayor of Balamory, boasting about buying Miss Hoolie a new jumper, for all his talk of cycle hire schemes and the Olympics have to do with Bexleyheath.
Despite the rough questions, they only came as an interruption to the backslapping. The event still felt politically lopsided – if London Assembly members are allowed to sneak in their own friendly questions to their candidate, can this really be called anything other than electioneering?
At the end, the mayor would have headed back off down the A2 into the sunset, job done at charming another group of voters, his apparent success of reviving the capital city up the road pressed home. “This is London’s safest borough!” declared Teresa O’Neill. Keeping Bexley safe from interfering Ken seemed to be what mattered last night – and with events like this shoring up the core vote, they can’t do the mayor’s chances of fending off the old foe any harm at all.