Hello. Yes, Spain was lovely thanks. Here's my first effort for the Guardian since my return. I'll be blogging here only sporadically for the next few days but getting back into serious action next week.
The Blond and the silly season were made for each other, I suppose, and their mating during this August has satisfied all implicated parties. As the scheduled Death of Gord tragedy ran out of plot (for the time being) newspapers’ summer craving for much political intrigue about nothing has been gratified by speculation that Mayor Johnson has designs on deposing David Cameron and becoming the giggliest prime minister in British history.
In a Telegraph column Johnson argued that Team GB’s successes in Beijing cast doubt on the view that society is “broken” and our youth devoid of moral purpose and backbone. This was read as a challenge to Cameronian orthodoxy and when subsequently Johnson used the Heseltine formula – professing himself unable to foresee circumstances under which he would seek to replace his leader - to deny having a covetous eye on Dave’s job, the frogs of speculation hopped still more madly in their box.
Johnson’s other contribution to the filling of holiday season column space came with the Olympic hand-over proceedings. Humorous diversion had been widely anticipated and Johnson duly obliged, struggling rather plumply to unfurl the ringed banner he was required to wave six times and later delivering a notably unbuttoned speech in which he pointed out that the sport of table tennis, at which the Chinese have long excelled, was a British invention.
This historical winding-up was not received with universal amusement by Johnson’s hosts. But it got up my nose for a different reason. I witnessed it for the first time shortly before 3.30 on Monday morning, having just returned from my holiday (on a camp site near Barcelona, since you ask). During my time away I’d seen only snippets of Olympic action, largely avoided newspapers and kept my mobile switched off for days on end. Only on Friday morning, 48 hours after the event, did I discover text messages telling me the dramatic news that Tim Parker, Johnson’s First Deputy and chief executive, had resigned.
This was a huge London story and still is. Not only was Parker the third of Johnson’s senior aides to resign since he took office, he was the mayor’s most powerful lieutenant. As Parker himself put it, his job had been to “run the place” on the mayor’s behalf, a brief which was intended to include chairing the board of Transport for London whose budget accounts for more than half the annual total of £11 billion the mayoralty controls. China might be another country and the Olympics another issue but given the circumstances back home a display a comedy jingoism about “ping-pong” looked flippant at best.
Now that Parker has stepped down the already fragile (not to mention still incomplete) structure of Johnson’s administration appears in disarray. The most detailed account so far suggests that Parker lost a power struggle with another of Johnson’s deputies, Sir Simon Milton. Unlike Parker and Johnson, Milton has experience of running London local government and plenty of it. If it is true that Sir Simon was so appalled by what he found on the eight floor of City Hall after four months of Johnson’s regime that he threatened to resign unless Parker stepped aside, it is grave indictment. The implications have not been lost on his media cheerleaders who have responded to the Parker crisis by reverting to tired red scare rhetoric against his (famously business-friendly) predecessor, their now standard default tactic when obliged to admit that their boy has screwed up.
Now what? In a thoroughly evasive press release, Johnson accepted that the political character of major TfL decisions make it necessary for him to chair the board (as Ken Livingstone had done) and that he could only delegate so many powers. This might be his first public admission that what his friend Charles Moore once described as his “Merry England” view of life is not suitable for a modern political machine; that running London might require a bit more than simply handing out top jobs to a few clever chaps and leaving them to get on with it; that there is a difference between light touch leadership and abdicating responsibility.
My conclusion about May’s mayoral election campaign was that in some areas (not least transport) Livingstone had better policies and where there wasn’t much to choose between the two candidates his experience made him the safer bet. This doesn’t mean I wish disaster on Johnson. He’s done the whole country a service by moving youth disaffection and safety on the streets up the political agenda. His cultural ambitions for London could produce valuable results and his approach to providing affordable housing – whatever that exactly means – may yet enhance the capital’s social as well as its property development.
But 21st century London is not Merry England and it’s certainly not the Merry Spectator. It’s a complex society of over seven million people, many of them frightened and poor. Mayor Johnson has made them several large promises. How long will it be before the million who voted for him conclude that he’s failing to take honouring them seriously?