Channeling Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, I emerged from Mill Hill Broadway station and walked straight into Boris Johnson, his mop of hair a beacon of white in the drudgery of North London suburbia. He was here to launch the London Conservative campaign.
My apprenticeship in gonzo journalism unwittingly began as I slipped in behind Boris, the local Tory candidate, Matthew Offord and Offord’s Jack Russell, Max. This was useful because I didn’t know where I was going, but Max clearly did.
And what a strange thing proximity to Boris is, because he occupies a place in public life that no else does. For a start, he’s a Tory who has been elected mayor in a firmly Labour city. He presents TV programmes on classical history and writes a weekly newspaper column for which he is reportedly paid six figures – despite being Chief Executive of one of the world’s great cities. And that’s fine, because he’s Boris – and if you are recognised by your first name only, you get latitude.
In the short walk from the station to the rally, Boris was stopped by the old, young, local, immigrant, male and female. For Offord, defending a razor thin majority of 106, every little helps and it was therefore no accident that this was the location chosen.
Entering the venue, past a throng of press snappers, Bo Jo stopped to chat to a member of the public. The local vicar, decked out in his black cassock looked on wistfully at the media circus encamped in his church hall. Inside, party members and candidates, representing all the hues of contemporary London, were carefully arranged on stage for the cameras and given placards expressing sentiments along the lines of to ‘Get with the Programme’ and ‘The Tories will sort you out’.
A tall fellow in civvies chatted to another man. ‘What do you do?’ asked one. ‘I’m actually an MP’ answered the other. Or at least he was until a few days ago. It was David Burrowes, candidate for Enfield Southgate (Majority: 7,626). Ivan Massow, positioning himself to be the next Tory mayoral candidate, milled around in his brown brogues, blue chinos and slightly ripped jacket – possibly the uniform.
Boris entered with Offord and Max – who started barking. Justine Greening – former MP for Putney and Secretary of State for International Development – also joined the party. But the media was there for Boris, and in truth, so was everyone else.
BoJo said “wealth creation with a moral purpose” was at the heart of the Conservative project. You shouldn’t entrust the future of the country to Ed Balls and Ed Milband, “the Thelma and Louise of British politics”.
He said London was thriving under the Conservatives and was becoming a centre for technology as well as finance and creative industries. There was a dig at France – now de rigeur for Conservatives who enjoy needling Miliband about his admiration for French Socialism. He warned that the SNP and Scottish Labour were “smacking their chops” at the prospect of getting their hands on property taxes from London (quiet hisses from the audience). Like a pantomime dame, he asked whether Labour should apologise for their poor record on housing, “Yes”, the audience said, predictably.
There is no doubt that out on the trail, Boris has incomparable star quality – even his critics have to give him that. It certainly gave the troops a lift. But what was that big fat elephant in the room? Despite all the talk about the transport projects he is delivering and London being a global city, not a single word about airports, arguably the most pressing infrastructure issue facing the city. It was almost as if Justine Greening – whose affluent constituency is 10 miles east of Heathrow’s two runways – was there to make sure.