CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Chasing Boris Johnson, the master of bobbing, weaving… and fleeing

CNJ politics reporter Richard Osley on our pursuit of the man heading to Downing Street

04 July, 2019 — By Richard Osley

Richard Osley attempts to get a straight answer from Mr Johnson

BORIS Johnson once said: “I am a complete buffoon, totally unsuit­able for high office and I am playing this whole game of politics for larks.”

Source? I haven’t got one. It’s a fabricated quote, the same offence that Mr Johnson was once fired from The Times for. I’ll collect my P45 on the way out, but only once I’ve explained how hard it is to draw much truth from anything said by Mr Johnson, the man who members of the Con­servative Party now look set to install as Brit­ain’s new Prime Minister in the next couple of weeks.

The Camden New Journal has, after all, been chasing him around for years without ever drawing a sensible response from him. All politicians employ some level of evasion – it’s par for the course – but Mr Johnson, including during the time that is most relevant to us, his period as London mayor, has proved the master of bobbing, weaving, chang­ing the subject – and if all else fails dashing.

At one point, we were left with little other option than to chase him down the road as we searched for justification for the closure of fire stations in London.

It had become tragically clear that the brigade would struggle to deal with two large incidents should they occur at the same time after an elderly man died in a fire in Camden Town while resources were being stretched by the Finchley Road fire which burned for almost two days in 2015.

The empty fire stations in Belsize Park and Clerkenwell have stood as monuments to Mr Johnson’s squeeze on public services we may all need to rely on one day.

While he is not responsible for the protracted and divisive negotiations aimed at opening a school in the former police station in Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, it was under Mr Johnson’s watch that the base was closed. For six years it has stood vacant while a debate over a stretched police presence has continued.

But while we all have lots of questions for him, whenever Mr Johnson landed in the borough he appeared to have little interest in providing any answers.

During the 2015 general election, he toured Hampstead, railing against Labour’s mansion tax proposal.

Nobody was apparently interested in whether he owned properties that would be liable for a new charge, Johnson insisted to us, before changing the subject about three times in the following minute.

He was rescued by zombie selfie hunters around the back of Hampstead High Street, whose request for a photo was suddenly more important than anything else.

The truth is that, whenever we asked any­thing even mildly testing that day, there would be a member of the public to grab and joke with. He explained that he could answer questions from journal­ists later.  Much later. So much later that we are still waiting. He pulled the same routine on a visit to West Hampstead. Here he visited West End Lane Books as a means of showing he was supportive of the village and its independent businesses.

He pulled Zadie Smith’s NW off a shelf, had his photo taken buying it and walked out muttering deliberately loudly about how Ms Smith’s previous work had been unreadable.

He enjoyed that one. His aides laughed. When we asked questions about cuts at City Hall, he reverted to off-topic tales about his childhood home in Primrose Hill, where he spent his early years in the local primary school.

The refusal to take any question, however, grew more serious as issues which had a direct impact on changing the face of Camden came into view.

At Mount Pleasant, a vast opportunity to soothe the housing crisis with affordable homes was passed up in favour of a more lucrative proposal from developers which was hinged on the private market.

Camden and Islington councils had refused plan­ning permission, but were overruled by Mr Johnson; an insult, many said, to how any democratic plan­ning process should operate.

Why had we elected councillors if they could be bundled out of the way by Mr Johnson? Again, getting a response as to why he had intervened was a thankless task.

One of our reporters again had to pursue him down the road during a secret site visit, as press officers tried to block the way and tell us that we were the ones who were acting unreasonably. This, of course, was the same claim when we buttonholed him about fire station closures. Why didn’t you just ask for an interview? a tweedy press officer asked as we chased Mr Johnson down a road in Islington. We had. Several times.

Former CNJ reporter William McLennan running after Boris Johnson as he cycles away from our questions

Mr Johnson tried to sprint off on his bike, but the lights changed and with our cameras snap­ping, he could hardly run through a red. So, while we could have conducted an interview at everybody’s convenience in an office at City Hall, we were left asking questions at a red stop.

He mumbled a bit, but had gone at the first sight of amber.

For his press interviews, the general suspicion is that he chooses journalists and broadcasters whom he thinks he can outwit; take any “exclusive” sit-down with a pinch of a salt.

When he does speak, his brash interventions can have consequences, especially if he comes as unprepared as he did to a select committee last year, when he told MPs that West Hampstead charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been “training journalists” before being arrested in Iran.

She was, in fact, on a family holiday, which due to her much-condemned detention she has still not returned from three years later. All media appeals and international negotiation have failed, but there is a fear that her case will hardly benefit if the man who has been accused of making things worse becomes Prime Minister.

Her supporters fear that once she has served her five-year sentence in Iran, his comments could yet be dredged up again and a new sentence handed down. Mr Johnson, as has become familiar to anyone who has tried to question him, sidesteps this possibility.

The avoidance continues, and yet with each unanswered question and amid the stage-managed obfusc­ation, he steps closer to the most important job.

There may be a lot more running down the road to do yet until anybody gets a straight answer.

The Mayor who told his opponent: Get stuffed!

IT’S not just to the press Boris Johnson has shown disregard; the press, that is, who are not paying £5,000 for a provocative column.

At City Hall, Camden’s representative, Andrew Dismore, had a torrid time, almost becoming Mr Johnson’s plaything.

When he raised the problem of restaurant staff on zero-hours contracts, Mr Johnson turned the session into a guessing game over what was at the “heart of the Dismore breakfast”, leading with the taunting suggestion that it would be a Big Mac.

The London Assembly is often a drowsy, jaded chamber, admittedly, but Mr Johnson entertained himself with the repartee rather than answering our elected scrutineers.

Mr Dismore was told he was supine or a jelly – or a “protoplasmic jelly”, in Mr Johnson’s florid lang­uage. In one exchange, Mr Johnson, like a bully on the beach kicking sand into a sunbathing Walter, just told Mr Dismore to “get stuffed”.

Imagine how he will enjoy PMQs.

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