Opinion: Nothing changes but you, Boris

Either the media are coming on too strong or something’s going very wrong in City Hall.

Last week London mayor Boris Johnson was forced to publicly stand up and back his deputy mayor for young people, Ray Lewis, after a series of allegations made against him by various journalists.

It looks like Mr Lewis’ past is coming back to haunt him. He was a minister but found himself barred from holding office by the Church of England. He lent money to parishioners, reports claim, but allegedly failed to pay them back. He has struggled to answer questions about why he left the prison service.

We’ve seen all this before. The man Boris ousted from office, Ken Livingstone, was partly kicked out because of a scandal surrounding his chief race adviser Lee Jasper. Mr Lewis says he is the victim of a “smear campaign” and dismisses the attacks as “totally unfounded”. Mr Livingstone said he would “bet my own life” that Mr Jasper would be cleared by a police investigation. Eventually, Mr Jasper was forced to step down. Mr Lewis now faces an independent inquiry.

Boris Johnson has already lost senior adviser James McGrath over some ill-advised comments about Caribbean immigrants and may now be in danger of letting another senior figure go. It’s hardly surprising that he leapt on the anti-Jasper bandwagon, seizing on the “millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money” which he said had been “wasted or trousered by cronies of the mayor”. As Mr Livingstone learned to his cost, dirt sticks. Mr Johnson may have known nothing about Mr Lewis’ alleged wrongdoings. But, so early in his mayoralty, he may begin paying the price for that failing.

Perhaps the problem lies with the media which, thanks to the Evening Standard newspaper, is especially effective at probing the failings of its leaders. Mr Livingstone complained constantly about the “trial by media” he believed Mr Jasper was being subjected to.

Boris learns his lessons well, and the quavering respect he awards the Standard was made clear during his first press conference, when the deference to the newspaper’s representative verged on pathetic.

Anyone who has lived in London in recent years will know the Standard’s extraordinary ability to turn public opinion. Its hostility to Mr Livingstone in his final years certainly reflected mainstream public opinion – or did it, to some extent, shape it? Mr Johnson has riled journalists by scrapping Ken’s old weekly press briefings. He’d much rather take us on trips to show his good works in action. Dare he risk the Standard turning against him?

It would be wrong to blame the media for what appears to be an innate hostility for the machinations of those on the eighth floor of City Hall. Impropriety is impropriety; journalists would not be doing their job if, for example, they were to sit around in offices playing beach volleyball rather than getting out and probing the credentials of those given power. The ultimate responsibility lies with the mayor.

Will Boris prove any better at this than Ken? Those observing his carefully stage-managed election campaign, which pulled off a minor miracle in managing to avoid any major apology-requiring gaffes, might think so. His performance in his opening two months suggests otherwise.

The new mayor of London should be able to focus on the big issues affecting the city. Violent crime is at the top of everyone’s list. There are also problems with social housing, bendy buses (or so Boris thinks) and a small upcoming event which might affect east London in 2012. The public will be aware that it takes more than a month for a mayoralty to get underway. That warrants sympathy and, during his honeymoon period, Boris deserves it. But further revelations about members of his team will drive the well-wishers away.

Alex Stevenson