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Is Boris Johnson a true convert to the localist cause?

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A commentary on the race to be the next Tory leader and prime minister 

 There are still a few weeks to go in the contest to be the next Conservative party leader and so next prime minister of the UK. However, despite not showing up to last night’s TV debate, or perhaps because of that, Boris Johnson’s journey to the top feels increasingly unstoppable.

This morning the bookies had him at 1/6, and while Rory Stewart leapfrogged Jeremy Hunt to become second favourite on 12/1, last week only 31% of the Tory membership that will choose between the final two candidates put forward by MPs thought Mr Stewart would make a good leader.

Former housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid has won the backing of Conservative Local Government Association chair Lord Porter, which may well have proved influential with the Tory councillors among the electorate, but his odds fell following last night’s debate. According to Betfair he is now even less likely to make it to the final two than even former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab who was famously surprised to learn of the extent of trade that flowed between Dover and Calais. Michel Gove, who derailed Mr Johnson’s last leadership bid by declaring him unfit for office, is all but out of the running on 45/1. 

So what would a Boris premiership mean for local government?

Unlike former health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt and international development secretary Rory Stewart we don’t know whether social care is among his top priorities, although the £9.6bn cost of his proposed tax cut for people earning over £50,000 a year does not suggest a leader prioritising finding extra cash to spend on public services.

On the face of it someone who has spent eight years in one of the biggest jobs in English local government should be good news. Indeed, as London mayor way back in 2013, Mr Johnson backed the recommendations of the London Finance Commission which proposed devolving council tax, business rates, stamp duty and capital gains tax to London.

In an article for this magazine in 2015, written with then London Councils chair Jules Pipe (Lab), Mr Johnson argued for further devolution to the capital.

“We desperately need a level of fiscal devolution that will allow us to invest in the infrastructure that London’s growth will require,” the article said.

“Beyond fiscal devolution, however, London also needs a wider public service settlement. This needs to be a settlement that allows us, together, to integrate local public services in a way that helps us to manage a period of sharply reducing public resources. We need the scope to be able to focus on cost-effective prevention of social and economic problems rather than paying for expensive failure.”

On the face of it, this is all very encouraging. However, though persuasive and well argued it is fair to say the column lacks any of the bombast or wordplay which Mr Johnson usually displays when he becomes exercised about an issue. We probably shouldn’t rush to count him as a true convert to the localist cause, indeed even Conservative commentators are disparaging about Mr Johnson’s achievements as mayor, pointing out he had eight deputy mayors who did much of the work.

At his campaign launch last week, one of the few occasions on which he has spoken publicly since the leadership contest got underway in earnest, Mr Johnson claimed everything he had done as mayor had been driven by a “desire for social justice”. He identified the “gulf” between London and the south east and the rest of the UK as an urgent issue in light of the referendum result, calling for a “levelling up”.

Tomorrow Conservative MPs will further whittle down the field with the remaining candidates, of which Mr Johnson is certain to be one, set to take part in a second debate on the BBC on Tuesday evening. Though Brexit will no doubt dominate most of the discussion, this should at least provide another opportunity to get the measure of a man who in just a few short years went from champion of the global city that voted emphatically for remain to leader of the leave campaign. 

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor

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Readers' comments (1)

  • His support for the f40 fairer funding campaign is welcome

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