From City Hall to Downing Street: what would Boris as Mayor tell us about Boris as PM?

As speculation mounts again about Theresa May’s longevity at Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s star has risen once again. But what would PM Boris be like? Ben Worthy and our own Mark Bennister read the runes from his time as London’s Mayor. This article was originally posted on Democratic Audit UK.


Having spent time in local government can be a bonus to a leader: Prime Ministers as diverse as Clement Attlee and Theresa May have done a stint at local level. We look at how Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London suggests what he would be like in Number 10.

Expect eye-catching media events and charisma…

Johnson rose to prominence through the media and was the archetypal ‘everyday’ celebrity politician. As Mayor he was an expert at either creating his own media events (such as joining a drugs raid in 2011) or taking advantage of any that came his way (such as the infamous Olympics zip-wire incident). While no great orator, his jokes and off-colour comments helped shape his image as a jester. His biographer Andrew Gimson speaks of how his political vision was, at best, a brand of ‘Merry England conservatism’, giving him pragmatism and flexibility as Mayor. Though his style was an ‘affront to serious people’s idea of how politics should be conducted’, like other leaders you could name, his ‘genuine bogusness’ held wide appeal, and brazen shamelessness, rather than being an impediment, was the key to his success.

His interventions as Foreign Secretary, a job that requires far more care, vision and diplomacy, have proved to be as disastrous as his Mayoral activities were successful. People have looked to Johnson, as a lead Brexiter in a great office of state, to see how Brexit will shape up, making it a little trickier not to have a vision. We could expect a series of terrible, Trump-esque scenes under Prime Minister Johnson. Johnson adores popularity and heartily dislikes being disliked – not a good set of desires for an office that (almost) inevitably results in disappointment.

…but don’t expect detail

Johnson was the Mayor ‘long on charisma and short on detail’. The secret to his success in London was to delegate to a series of very able chiefs of staff and deputies. He has struggled in the FCO, an office requiring a very firm grasp of details and briefs, with the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic dispute with Iran revealing just how out of his depth he seemed. The key to any Boris premiership would be who is at his shoulder.

Expect quixotic populist projects (that may never arrive)

Johnson’s time as Mayor was filled with populist ideas for grand projects that either didn’t quite prove to be the success they hoped (such as the cable cars) or never came to pass (the ‘Boris Island’, his airport on the Thames). These projects served to gather headlines for Boris and, in the case of Boris Island, side step tricky questions about Heathrow as he searched for a safe seat. Yet London and the taxpayer is still paying the price for a series of expensive and incomplete vanity projects. The introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’ is, of course, a standout policy. It has not, however, been the social leveller he promised and use of the bikes is disproportionately an activity of affluent, white men. Anyone hoping that Prime Minister Johnson will mean a bridge over to France should prepare to be disappointed.

Expect him to take an ‘independent’ line

Perhaps the one area in which Johnson resembles Churchill is his almost perpetual disloyalty to the party line. Though Johnson is ostensibly a Conservative, he repeatedly used the office of Mayor to push against any ‘slavish’ interpretation of government or party policy. He fought robustly government housing policy, policing cutbacks and, most importantly, Conservative EU policy on a referendum.

Even as Foreign Secretary, it seems collective responsibility and non-interference in other ministers’ ‘patches’ doesn’t apply to him and he has formulated his own red lines and ideas on NHS funding. Creating such ‘distance’ from within Downing Street is difficult, as Theresa May has found out. It’s far harder to rebel and push against ‘the official line’ when you are in charge of it. And Boris has few friends and limited numbers of cheerleaders in the Conservative party. Remember how his so-called friend and once-planned running partner Michael Gove stabbed him in the front?

Expect victory?

Johnson’s greatest achievement was winning twice in a Labour city. Perhaps his key selling point was his ‘bridging’ popularity. Boris (like Ken Livingstone before him) had cross-party appeal. His style and charisma made him the Heineken politician, reaching voters no one else could. The past tense is important, as it’s no longer clear he’s still Heineken. In 2017 there were claims he was ‘toxic’, especially in Remain areas. London has clearly fallen out of love with him. Current polls record only a +6 point lead on whether he was a good or bad Mayor (compared with a +20 point lead for his old foe Ken). Even Tory voters are losing faith. Could Boris Johnson still heal the divided country? The numbers on the bus he rode say no, though the Foreign Secretary and his supporters may believe the old magic is still there.

In some senses, Mayor of London was Johnson’s perfect job. He had limited power but a wonderful platform. The fear is that we would get a Prime Minister Johnson full of quixotic projects, tilting at windmills and bringing the country down with him when he falls.

See the new article Worthy, B., Bennister, M., & Stafford, M. (2018). ‘Rebels leading London: the mayoralties of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson compared’. British Politics.


Rebels Leading London

Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone
30 Apr 2012, London, England, UK — London Mayor Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone at the Times Cycling Hustings in Central London — Image by © Andrew Parsons/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Reader in Politics Mark Bennister together with Ben Worthy at Birkbeck College, University of London and CCCU Politics PhD student Max Stafford – who is conducting comparative research into mayors – have published a comparison of the mayoralties of the first two directly elected Mayors of London, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson in the journal British Politics.

The position of mayor offers a commanding electoral platform, but few direct powers to lead a city widely regarded as ‘ungovernable’ (Travers 2004). The two mayors had some obvious points of comparison: both were party rebels, mavericks and skilled media operators. Both also used publicity to make up for weak powers, but courted controversy and faced charges of corruption and cronyism. Utilising Hambleton and Sweeting (2004), this article compares their mayoralties in terms of vision, leadership style and policies. Livingstone had a powerful vision that translated into clear policy aims, while Johnson’s time as Mayor was more cautious, shaped by a desire for higher office. Livingstone built coalitions but proved divisive, whereas Johnson retained remarkable levels of popularity. Where Livingstone bought experience and skill, Johnson delegated. In policy terms, the two mayors found themselves pushed by their institutional powers towards transport and planning while struggling with deeper issues such as housing. Livingstone introduced the radical congestion charge and a series of symbolic policies. Johnson was far more modest, championing cycling, the 2012 Olympics and avoiding difficult decisions. The two used their office to negotiate, but also challenge, central government. Livingstone’s rebel mayoralty was a platform for personalised change, but Johnson’s one was for personal ambition. This is a timely article with Johnson once again indicating his personal ambition.

For advanced online access copies see


‘The Fall’ as an Act of Refusal


Dr David Bates, Director of Politics and IR at Canterbury Christ Church University, reflects on the political nature of the work of singer Mark E. Smith and argues that it presented in many ways an act of refusal.

Mark E. Smith, who died on 24 January 2018, was the lead singer of the North Manchester ‘Post-Punk’ band ‘The Fall’.

The title of the band was taken from a work of that name by Albert Camus (in French La Chute). Beyond Camus, Smith was influenced by a number of writers and artists – from the philosophy of Nietzsche, the music of Can, and the dystopian science fiction of Philip K. Dick. These influences he reintroduced through his own form of amplified distortions into the Manchester of the late 1970s.

Smith’s outpouring of work over the next 40 years was immense (32 studio albums and 46 singles).

This work was not always – indeed rarely – easy on the ear. But it was not intended to be. (Smith once remarked to one of his musicians ‘if you’re going to play it out of tune, then play it out of tune properly’.)

What the fall for me represented was a possibility of a form of ‘pop’ music which simultaneously refused the rules of pop. The Fall produced music often so distorted that it would have seemed impossible to commodify. They made an anti-commodity commodity. Their very existence 40 years after their formation was a refusal of the power of Simon Cowell and others like him, who have done so much to hollow out the power of popular culture in order line their own pockets. To this extent, The Fall were political in a very real sense.

Though Smith would have loathed my pretention – he was serious about his art. (Indeed in 1988 The Fall provided the soundtrack for the ballet ‘I am Curious Orange’ by the Michael Clark Ballet Company.) The Fall were performance art at its most visceral. They produced a form of pop music which negated Ed Sheeran. And I would listen ten times to the Fall’s C.R.E.E.P than I would to Shape of You!

Mark. E. Smith
5 March 1957 – 24 January 2018

CIAP 2018 Winter Symposium hosted at Canterbury Christ Church University

On 18 January 2018, the CIAP (Conference for Interdisciplinary Approaches to Politics) Winter Symposium 2018 will be hosted by the Politics and IR team at Canterbury Christ Church University, headed by Dr Demetris Tillyris (Lecturer in Political Theory).

Conference description:
The emotional turn in IR and Political History is gaining considerable scholarly acknowledgement, evident in recent works such as ‘Researching Emotions in International Relations: Methodological Perspectives on the Emotional Turn’ (2018, Maéva Clément and Eric Sangar). In addition, political science, having traditionally concerned itself solely with the ‘rational’ public sphere (rather than the ‘emotional’ private sphere), has increasingly questioned its own dichotomisation. In recent years the discipline has identified broader definitions of ‘politics’ and, as a result, new forms of political practice.

The present political climate—frequently characterised by widespread distrust, populist campaigns and extreme rhetoric—necessitates addressing and examining the emotions that underpin so much of the international political process. These informal and overtly affective manifestations of politics are enormously influential, profoundly shaping the democratic process both within and between nations. Moreover, these manifestations are extremely varied in nature, and thus require an interdisciplinary approach to examine them.

This workshop brings together scholars from a range of disciplines, including education, psychology, political theory and sociology. It includes a breadth of academic approaches, from quantifying emotions to the practice of storytelling. In doing so, we illustrate that emotions are cross-disciplinary as political concerns, and that their relevance goes far beyond the study of politics per se.

Conference programme:
You can download the conference programme here.

New House of Commons Briefing by CCCU academic Dr Mark Bennister

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May made her second appearance before the Liaison Committee, a year after her only other appearance. These sessions with the Prime Minister have occurred since 2002 and have now become an established part of the scrutiny mechanisms available to Parliament.

Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University and one of only 5 Parliamentary Fellows in the House of Commons, has now produced a briefing with the House of Commons Library that sets out the background to the evidence sessions. You can read the full briefing by clicking here or on the cover page below.