A Boris Johnson press conference is a gastromic feast compared to the thin gruel served up by other politicians, says our housing editor
Having just got back from Boris Johnson’s first – impromptu - press conference with the property and construction press I feel compelled to relate how the new London mayor has ratcheted up the level of weirdness of these events even from City Hall’s previous incumbent.
Firstly, one has to say, whatever your political leanings, the man is hilarious. And genuinely eccentric. And that’s not to say that press conferences with Ken weren’t incredibly lively and entertaining – a gastronomic feast compared to the thin gruel of entertainment from Westminster politicians.
But in the words of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnell, Boris has turned the entertainment value up to 11. Famously a Kings scholar, educated at Eton, he peppers his responses with occasional arcane Latinate references – particularly when talking about architecture. That’s to be expected. Less expected was his answering – or avoidance of a question – by referring to the Ben Stiller film Dodgeball.
As close as I can get to a verbatim account – when asked about the detail of the proposals in Planning a Better London – is this:
Firstly, one has to say, whatever your political leanings, the man is hilarious.
“Er, right, er…I’m not going to, er… Let me say – have you ever seen the film Dodgeball? You know, er, “dodge, duck, dive.” Have you seen it?”
All this accompanied by a great broad smile so you knew he was not really in the press conference at all – just there with Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, living the Las Vegas Dodgeball championship. As the next question comes to him, he still seems to feel little inclination to leave his Dodgeball world, making Ben Stiller movements as the journalist desperately tries to be taken seriously.
All of the clichés about him are true – the schoolboy impishness, the distracted charm, the sense that he might quite literally say anything at any given moment. Along with the sense the whole thing is really just a bit of fun. Along with the occasion flows of erudition that remind you there is a pretty ferocious intelligence up there – albeit one that seemingly isn’t trying that hard to engage with the world around him.
Most people might find the idea of being surrounded by a group of people paid to scrutinise your every move stressful. Boris acted like it didn’t occur to him everyone wouldn’t like him. And generally, the assembled hacks were won over, if a little bemused.
As the next question comes to him, he still seems to feel little inclination to leave his Dodgeball world, making Ben Stiller movements as the journalist desperately tries to be taken seriously.
But, given the seriousness of the topics he’s talking about and the things he has control of – not only whether you get to build another wave of tall buildings, or whether a new generation of affordable homes will get built, but how to deal with teenagers being stabbed to death on the street, one could be forgiven for being annoyed at his continual levity.
Another case in point: asked whether he’d continue with the GLA’s 100 public spaces campaign in London, he said, haltingly: “Er, yes well, I, of course, love public spaces, the way they look on the page. I think those pictures with the butterflies and trees superimposed are actually lovely, and the little people wandering around. They’re great. So I’m in favour.”
It’s fair to say it wasn’t the answer the journalist was expecting. As an afterthought Johnson added: “Of course a number of the schemes have their problems and they are under review.”
Poor David Lunts, Boris’s (and Ken’s before him) executive director of policy and partnerships, was left trying to explain to a bunch of very confused journalists exactly what the mayor had meant about introducing a new Parker Morris space standard for the 21st century.
The question is really to what extent this is just a schtick he uses – in the same way Ken did - to get out of answering difficult questions by making people laugh
The question is really to what extent this is just a schtick he uses – in the same way Ken did - to get out of answering difficult questions by making people laugh. Or if he genuinely is that far away with the fairies.
Is he the most eccentric politician I’ve ever encountered? Yes, probably – though Peter Mandelson is pretty odd. Is he a very funny man? Absolutely, whether you think its all an act or not. Does he know the detail of construction policy for London? Not really. Will he make a great mayor of London, or an embarrassment? No idea.
But, after ten minutes chatting with him – and I hate myself for this – you’re laughing so much you’re inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.