Today we learnt from the Mayor of London that as only 0.2% of burglaries are committed by the over sixties London has a ‘wonderful bunch of senior citizens’ and that it is also the city with more Chinese students than any other in the world, ‘except for cities in China where they have large numbers of Chinese students’.
Every month the Mayor of London has to answer questions from Assembly members. It is not a meeting defined by its decorum and good manners. Rather like PMQs further down the river it is a chance for insults to be thrown and party points to be made. However it lasts much longer and there are far fewer members to shout abuse. The assembly chamber is more of an area than a room, the centre of a bee hive with walkways swirling above and glass walls allowing activities on the Thames to distract. The Members sit along a horse shoe-shaped desk with the Mayor at a small table at the open end of the horse shoe.
Boris Johnson arrived with his familiar black rucksack. My laptop has just auto-corrected Boris to Bores, which would be a good call for many politicians, but this is a man who was about to claim that one Member may have been born in the Chinese Year of the Slug.
‘Not many Tories’, said one of the Labour members, their quiet comments being picked up by an active microphone.
‘Frenziedly busy serving London,’ the Mayor suggested as he got out a folder of papers. The Tory members soon appeared, Boris ran his hand through his hair for the first of many times and we were off. First business was to welcome all the students in the public gallery, who waved when their school was mentioned and appeared to make up most of the audience.
The Mayor was given five minutes to add to his written report and he told us that his recent trip to China was a ‘Good use of our time and taxpayers’ money’ and had resulted in billions of pounds worth of investment coming into London. He mentioned some other statistics, including the good behaviour of the over-sixties. He was in full flow when the Chair asked if he would wrap up.
There is a definite them and him feeling about these sessions, with the Mayor and the Opposition members exchanging un-parliamentary language with abandon.
‘As ever the Mayor is ill-briefed,’ was the first, and politest of the exchanges, before Andrew Dismore said that Johnson had been born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon, and was therefore characterised by a big ego, living the high life and grabbing headlines. Sotto voce Boris wondered about Dismore having been born in the Year of the Slug, before more loudly asking when was the Year of the Hippo? He was being asked about Border Agency raids in China Town, and after expounding on the need for controls on illegal immigration he managed to criticise the Labour party’s record, ‘whenever they were in power,’ before announcing he was the only politician pro-immigration that he knew. He asked for a show of hands amongst the members , presumably expecting none to go up. Several hands were raised.
‘A few of you,’ Boris mumbled, slightly miffed.
John Biggs asked a question about Cycle Super Highways and the false sense of security that they give cyclists, especially at busy junctions. This allowed Johnson to refer to himself as a full-time cyclist, which seems a bit of an exaggeration when the world includes people like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Jenny Jones claimed he was not a normal cyclist, to which Johnson took exception.
‘You have a weird view,’ she explained, ‘that these junctions are good for adrenalin levels.’
‘I want everyone in London to feel safe on a bike,’ Boris riposted.
Caroline Pidgeon moved onto Travelcards and the fact that there is no card available that helps part-time workers. She made her argument and asked if Boris would look at it.
‘Yes or no?’ she asked.
‘No,’ he replied.
Tom Copley asked a question about housing strategy to which the Mayor claimed ‘I profess myself completely baffled by the question.’ It didn’t seem that baffling a question, Copley wanted to know why it was taking so long to produce the Housing strategy report that had first been announced in 2010. After some to and froing that was getting nowhere the mayor claimed ‘I’m surprised by your question.’
‘I’m surprised by your answer,’ Copley replied. ‘I’ll leave it there.’
As indeed I had to. So another meeting of obfuscation and disagreement. ‘Our job is to carry on persuading,’ Pidgeon said at one point. There’s a lot of persuading to be done on both sides.