Saturday, 5 July 2008

Deputy mayor quits: what's at stake for Boris Johnson

So, Boris Johnson is a deputy mayor down. Ray Lewis has quit under a cloud and this morning’s papers are full of phrases like “hammer blow” and “gift to his opponents”. Jo keeps reminding me that she predicted long ago that Johnson’s lack of managerial competence would be his undoing.

There’s another reason the mayor should be worried: just three months into his term, Johnson is not embodying his carefully crafted political narrative. In marketing speak, his brand may get contaminated, all over again.

During the mayoral campaign, Boris Johnson told people a classic “time for a change” story. He offered a new face, a new style, a new focus on London’s issues and, above all, an end to staff and administrative scandals at City Hall.

That worked because during the campaign, he struck a chord with voters. And Johnson embodied his narrative by being younger, newer and more approachable than Ken Livingstone. At the same time, he was serious, measured and upbeat about London and its future.

When a Ray Lewis happens and the mayor is forced on to the backfoot, with the sort of media he faces this morning, Johnson does not live his story.

In his 1995 book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner stressed how leaders need to embody their narratives in order to be authentic and credible and bring their stories alive.

Even the most brilliant and successful political narratives implode. Interestingly, it's because the politicians telling the stories cease to embody them. When that happens, those politicians are soon on their way out. Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” story eventually morphed into the infamous 1945 campaign speech that compared the Labour party to the Gestapo. Margaret Thatcher promised the anxious middle classes that she would “make Britain again”. The grocer’s daughter worked all hours. The story ended with the poll tax rots and government splits over the ERM. Tony Blair was the young leader of a “new Britain”; he dressed and acted accordingly. He ended up taking it into Iraq, telling a story that was false.

Johnson’s defenders will say it’s still early days yet. So it is. But London voters gave Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Whilst they are very different, the last UK politician to be given that was Gordon Brown when he became prime minister. And Brown’s popularity collapsed when he stopped embodying his narrative. The visionary prime minister, the strong leader who offered a new, spin-free style of government played politics with the timing of a general election. Then he looked at the marginal seat polls, dithered and finally ditched the idea. We still do not know what Brown is trying to achieve as PM. The conscience of New Labour scrapped the 10p income tax rate – playing politics again – and left more than 5 million low-income households worse off. Then, in an effort to quell a political firestorm, the one-time iron chancellor put his own fiscal rules at risk with a £2.7bn compensation scheme.

It’s a grim, powerful lesson. If Boris Johnson does not regain control over his story and his brand, he may end up suffering the same fate as Brown.

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