Boris Johnson’s choice of Andrew Gilligan as London’s cycling tsar increases the whiff of cronyism around the London mayor
Boris Johnson shows all the signs of believing himself so popular that he can largely do whatever he likes without consequences. The latest demonstration of this mayoral insouciance is the appointment of Andrew Gilligan, one of his most energetic supporters, as his cycling tsar.
I know Gilligan to be clever and assiduous; he took up cycling to get fit and lose weight and has been successful at both (despite his love of chocolate creams). He now cycles 100 miles a week around London, so knows its pleasures and perils. He has also leavened his persistent praise for Johnson overall by once describing the design of the mayor’s cycling superhighways as in places “bizarre” and “dangerous”. So far, so good for someone whose job it surely is to ensure that the mayor finally delivers on his now laughable 2008 election promise of a London cycling revolution.
Yet Gilligan’s appointment on a part-time basis – reportedly on a handsome public wage – is bigger news than just choosing an experienced cyclist to chivvy Transport for London to be nicer to two-wheelers. It has already given rise to claims that City Hall, which Johnson used to denounce under his predecessor’s regime as stuffed full of Ken’s cronies, is now full of Boris’s buddies. Johnson, even as he draws ever closer to becoming our future prime minister, acts in the knowledge that while he is lavished with media attention, he rarely suffers from something so taxing as scrutiny. So why not hire chums?
For all Gilligan’s talents, his closeness to Johnson should not just be allowed to pass without comment. The fact that his career is thriving – with slots on LBC radio and a starring role at the Sunday Telegraph – is largely down to the mayor. Gilligan left the BBC after his explosive 2003 report on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Labour government had “sexed up” a briefing paper on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Johnson not only offered the beleaguered Gilligan a job on the Spectator, which he edited at the time, but the magazine hosted a “Save Andrew Gilligan” dinner at Luigi’s restaurant in Covent Garden. Although largely proved right, Gilligan remains a controversial figure to many (and therefore no threat to the super-popular Johnson) not least for the period he also worked at the Evening Standard.
He looks bashful when credited with delivering the 2008 mayoral election for Johnson, but Gilligan’s relentless exposure in the Standard of the questionable activities of a key Ken Livingstone adviser was probably “wot won it”. He repeated the favour last year when airing concerns about Livingstone’s tax arrangements, leading to another improbable Johnson victory.
Gilligan’s former editor at the Standard, Veronica Wadley, is already on Johnson’s payroll. (He is known as a big payer despite his relatively limited powers, employing in 2010, for instance, five of the six best-paid political advisers in the UK.) She not only backed Gilligan to the hilt in 2008 but devoted herself to what she called the “campaign” to get Johnson elected. In fact, Wadley lays claim to having persuaded David Cameron to appoint Johnson (whom she knew from her stint on the Telegraph) as the Conservative mayoral candidate in the first place. So hard did Gilligan and Wadley work during the 2008 election that she might have been forgiven for thinking they were doing more to “back Boris” than the man himself.
Like Gilligan though, Wadley came a cropper, losing her Standard job soon after, with her successor on the paper running an advertising campaign apologising for the paper’s partisan coverage under her editorship. Johnson swiftly tried to install his champion in a London arts job only to be blocked by the then Labour government. The mayor was said to be panicking at this failure to “sort” Vronnie, as he calls her, fearing that she would “go on the warpath crying ‘But I created you!'”. Even more tellingly, one former aide recalls, “the sense of payback became acute”. And indeed, now Wadley is Johnson’s “senior adviser on volunteering”, though some were unable to identify any specific qualifications for the job, on an eventual salary of £95,000.
I’ve worked as a journalist with both Wadley and Gilligan and know them to have many qualities. But just as Wadley’s expertise in volunteering was not immediately apparent to many, so Gilligan’s cycling CV may not be as impressive, say, as some of the experts and professionals at the London Cycling Campaign and elsewhere. I wish himwell in his new job. Otherwise more cyclists will die on London’s increasingly dangerous roads. But his appointment raises questions about any future Johnson government and which other Boris buddies would be in it.