Good advices?

 [First published in Local Government Chronicle, 24 November 2020]

Choosing the right advisors is one of the most important decisions that political leaders make, as recent Downing Street dramas have illustrated. This is perhaps particularly true for the mayor of London, who unlike the prime minister or a council leader does not have the support of a party group, but only the watchful eye of a scrutinising London Assembly.

So, alongside City Hall’s expert staff, mayors need mates; their own people who can advise and represent them in such a huge city. The mayor of London can bring in 12 appointees, and the ways in which the three mayors to date have appointed and worked with their teams have been indicative both of their strengths and their weaknesses – as detailed in London’s Mayor at 20, a collection of essays, analyses and interviews looking back over the past two decades of the capital’s mayoralty.

When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, he came with a gang of advisors who had worked with him for many years – from the Greater London Council, from activism since then, from his parliamentary office. Most had worked with him when he had decided to run as an independent following Labour’s bungled attempt to fix candidate selection. Within weeks of his election, Ken had advertised posts as ‘policy advisors’, and many of these were filled by familiar faces.

The team were all broadly from the political left, albeit from different denominations; Simon Fletcher, Ken’s chief of staff and former parliamentary researcher, brokered agreement on priorities and positioning. The mayor used to describe advisors such as Neale Coleman, John Ross, Jude Woodward and Lee Jasper as being like ministers – with full authority to represent his views. The team was consistent through Ken’s two terms, with the mayor showing loyalty (and damaging his 2008 re-election campaign) when advisors became embroiled in newspaper allegations of cronyism.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Johnson had no deep roots in London politics, and had only been an MP since 2001. There was no gang waiting in the wings when the ebullient loner was elected in 2008. Nick Boles, then Conservative MP for Grantham and founder of the Policy Exchange thinktank, worked with the new mayor to appoint deputy mayors.

The initial tranche proved shaky: one was prosecuted for fiddling expenses, another was found to have fabricated his CV, and a third senior advisor made comments on race issues that led to swift resignation. Tim Parker – a corporate restructuring guru appointed as chief of staff and first deputy mayor – left when it became clear that there wasn’t the scope or appetite for the application of his specialised skill set, and that Boris wanted to take decisions as mayor rather than acting as a media-friendly figurehead.

Other appointments were more stable, some becoming long-term Johnson allies. Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for culture and education, followed Johnson to Downing Street, as did chief of staff Eddie Lister, who is now temporarily filling the same role at 10 Downing Street. Lister, and Simon Milton the former Westminster City Council leader who preceded him at City Hall, took a relatively light-touch approach to policy co-ordination, leaving other deputy mayors, such as Stephen Greenhalgh, Kit Malthouse and Isabel Dedring, with space to develop policy positions, but also giving a looser sense of direction than under Livingstone.

If Sadiq Khan drew one lesson from Boris’s wobbly transition, it was not to make appointments too quickly. His deputy mayors were appointed painstakingly over his first six months in office. Senior local government figures such as James Murray and Jules Pipe, former mayor of Hackney, were appointed alongside former GLA officials Justine Simons and Shirley Rodrigues, and external figures such as human rights barrister Matthew Ryder, shadow transport minister Heidi Alexander and former Home Office special advisor Sophie Linden.

These appointments have been carefully judged, but the deputies are not close to Sadiq and his decision-making in the way that Ken’s were, or eventually Boris’s became. Less prominent are the inner circle of advisors who agree policy positioning: chief of staff David Bellamy, director of policy Nick Bowes, and communications and external affairs directors Leah Kreitzman, Paddy Hennessy and Jack Stenner.

The London mayoralty is an unusual role: it can be a springboard or a dead-end; it suits loners and mavericks, but requires constant coalition-building; it gives extensive powers of patronage and appointment, alongside singular accountability. It is a job to which the incumbent is elected alone, but not one which any mayor could hope to carry out alone. Appointing advisors and deputies is an early but critical decision, requiring trust and judgement. For a political loner like Boris Johnson it is a fraught business, and one that has given him a rocky start both as mayor of London and as prime minister.

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