“It’s obvious I’m gay. The blind know I am gay,” Andrew Boff exclaims towards the end of our meeting.
And he may be right. Practically every news report about the Tory party’s selection of a candidate to take on Ken Livingstone for Mayor of London uses the ‘gay’ tag to describe him.
In the flesh he is far from the media stereotype of a gay man.
Gruff, grizzled and with an accent and manner that are decidedly geezerish, the 49-year-old former leader of Hillingdon council is a life-long Tory.
The gay tag, he explains, is just another example that attitudes, even in London, still have to change.
“If you look at ITV news, or any of them, they’ll say – and I’m not being derogatory to my colleagues – they’ll say ‘Boris Johnson, broadcaster; Victoria Borwick, businesswoman; Warwick Lightfoot, economist; Andrew Boff, gay IT consultant,'” he complains, name-checking the three other candidates who have been selected to run against eachother for the Tory nomination.
“When they start saying ‘Boris Johnson, heterosexual journalist’ … I do get annoyed, and I’ve complained many times to the BBC.
“I do remember the one case, I was absolutely furious, when I was watching a news report about a paedophile who was being released from jail, and the quote was: ‘such-and-such was released from jail, and was met by his gay partner.’
“I went absolutely ballistic, and I did get a retraction out of them. I said ‘by all means say gay partner, but only if, every time you mention everybody else, you say heterosexual, or straight.’
“There still is that low-level prejudice, it’s almost a well-meaning prejudice sometimes, they feel like they’re doing you a favour by mentioning it.
“I’m obviously not ashamed of somebody saying I’m gay – I would more likely sue you if you said I had a secret wife and two kids – but I do wonder about that subliminal gay thing.”
That was about as much gay politics as we talked during our meeting, for there are more pressing matters, such as the future direction of London, that Boff is keen to discuss.
He is clearly relishing a chance to take on Ken.
After all, he nearly won his party’s nomination in 2000 and 2004, only to see his dreams thwarted by big-name candidates Lord Archer and Steve Norris.
In 2007 it seemed that his time had come, when at the last minute a blond bombshell exploded into the race.
Boff assures me that he can beat Henley MP and TV regular Boris Johnson, stressing that London needs a competent mayor and not a media darling.
The Tories have opened up the selection contest with a ‘primary,’ in which all of London’s registered voters can take part either by phoning a premium-rate phone number or by applying for a ballot paper.
Around 40 Tories put themselves forward for the nomination – a selection panel met last weekend to pick the finalists.
Boff describes the selection interview as “a grilling.”
“They did ask some incisive questions about the candidates, and I can’t say that I performed perfectly, it was very intense stuff, as it should be.
“We can’t just have people being pushed into the public eye as supposed ambassadors for the Conservative party if they can’t answer a few questions from people such as yourself.
“We’ve got to be able to explain our policies, and the party’s policies, in a coherent way that doesn’t look like we’re flapping.”
That sounded very like that a sly dig at David Cameron’s propensity to choose candidates in a way a PR company would, rather than sticking to party members.
After all, the Tories did very publicly fail to recruit former BBC director-general Greg Dyke and former Met Police Commissioner Lord Stevens to run for mayor.
Boris himself is hardly a consistent presence among London Tories.
Boff admits to never having met him before the selection panel, and he is widely reported to be Cameron’s choice for London.
More recently, the party chose Tony Lit to run for them in Ealing Southall, where they came in third.
Lit had only been a member of the party for a matter of days.
Surely, given the result, he was a bad choice? Boff shows himself to be adept at the political art of sticking to the party line.
“I don’t think he was a bad choice at all. You’ve got to realise the context of that by-election. Bear in mind the record we have had in by-elections over the years.
“Usually what one would have expected is for the Conservative vote to flop, the Liberal vote to go through the roof, and then for them to take the seat off Labour.
“It didn’t happen, our vote actually held up.
“One thing it did show is that the Conservative party is welcoming to all comers, and that if you decide to get involved with the party you will be given a responsible position, you won’t necessarily have to serve an apprenticeship for 20 years before people even talk to you.
“I certainly approved of Tony Lit as a candidate, I understand the problems that people might have had, that being said, we didn’t do that badly.”
Boff’s respectable defence, however, does not address the real concern of some in the party that Cameron’s ‘new’ Conservatives are faltering.
Labour are surging ahead in the polls with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister – if the Tories lose the next election, will that bring an end to the Cameron experiment?
It cannot be denied that a considerable proportion of Tory grassroots members do regard the Cameron approach as an experiment, to test the waters, to shift to the centre and pick up some support.
Boff defends the leader and is blunt about the old school Conservatives.
“It’s not an experiment. There are people who still yearn for the halcyon days that never actually were, and all parties have that.
“You’ve got the Liberals with their sandal-wearers, you’ve got the Labour party with their socialists, who are now completely marginalized.
“In our party, we’ve got people who feel there is something else about the party. Queen and country, but that’s always been the case.
“There’s no way it’s going to change now, the Conservative party is bedded in to the Cameron agenda, even if Cameron were to go.
“It’s unstoppable, and we will not be going backwards.”
So what does Andrew Boff, 49-year-old IT consultant and publisher from Hackney, have to offer?
What are the key areas where Londoners want action?
He cites transport, housing and returning power to local communities as his priorities.
“We pretty much know who is going to be in the top two in the 2008 mayoral election, it’s going to be Conservative or Labour.
“There’s no other option, the Liberal Democrats will not come through, the Greens will not come through, and none of the third parties will come through.
“They know that, we know that, so whoever is selected for our party has a real chance of ousting the current mayor.
“And the current mayor is not as popular as he tells everybody he is, and there are some things that really wind people up.
“Some of the things happening in London are really starting to annoy people.
“There is a development over in Hammersmith, which was a local authority initiative, to convert an old factory into affordable property, social housing and housing for sale.
“Ken went in and decided he was unilaterally going to re-jig that, despite the fact that the local authority was providing an awful lot more properties than actually were necessary in Ken’s own plan.
“And yet you look at Dalston in east London, he’s put in a plan there where there’s only 10% affordable housing.
“Even though I don’t have any kids, and two bedrooms is enough for me, what they’re crying out for, needing in London, is family housing.
“Yet everywhere we’re getting high rise, dormitory developments, were getting one bedroom, two bedroom flats.
“Now that’s okay for the commuters, for the people who spend their time out in the country.
“But it’s an absolute waste of an opportunity when there are people overcrowding into one and two bedrooms in some cases – I kid you not – I found one family of nine in a two-bedroom council property.
“It’s a crisis in London, it’s not just something we can forget about, and Ken is not addressing it by putting forward targets for single bedroom properties.
“I’ve just given you an example of a Tory borough trying to provide more affordable housing being told it couldn’t, and a Labour borough providing hardly any affordable housing in a development.
“It’s political, it’s all very well worked out, and Ken is a superb political manager.
“So when he comes all bleeding hearts and flowers about the plight of Londoners, look at where he’s actually making those complaints.
“It’s simply not the case that the boroughs are unable to resolve this housing crisis.”
Boff says all this with a tinge of frustration and uses these examples to argue for more local decision-making.
“We do have to do a lot of building, I’m absolutely certain. But what you can do is engage people.
“And you’ll get people’s support when you start to get them to realise that their sons and daughters can no longer afford to live in the area that they were brought up.
“They either have to go further out in London, or, in an awful lot of cases, completely outside London in order to get on the housing ladder.
“If you can start to engage communities with those kind of arguments, they will, as they have done in the past, say ‘yeah, come in, build, but let’s be involved.’
“Don’t take the decisions out there, then bring them down here.
“Ken is actually taking power away from the boroughs, away from people, and he’s centralising it to himself.
“The kind of decisions that he’s been making recently, around London, whereby he’s said, ‘actually, local people don’t know better, I know better.'”
Boff proposes that Londoners should have the right to draw up their own policies and have them voted on by fellow Londoners.
‘Voters’ initiatives’ are modelled on the ‘citizens’ initiative’ procedures used in many U.S. states and in Switzerland.
The results would be binding on the mayor and the Greater London Authority, who put into action the plans of the mayor.
“Every politician will come in and say to you, ‘we believe in consultation,’ but very few of them say how they will turn that into actual power for the people,” he explains.
Transport is a key battleground in London politics.
Ken has angered some and delighted others by introducing a hefty congestion charge on the centre of the city, and used some of that revenue to invest in new ‘bendy buses’ to replace the much-loved Routemaster buses.
Under Margaret Thatcher, investment in the Tube was non-existent, and the Victorian system came close to breaking point.
Under Labour, controversial schemes involving private companies have seen record investment in tube lines, stations and track replacement.
Boff accepts that the Tories have a bad reputation when it comes to the Tube.
“There was a generally poor view under Mrs Thatcher, more than John Major, because Major actually started to invest in the Underground.
“There was a poor view of, specifically, the Underground, and public transport just got this sordid edge to it that put people off.
“A lot of the problems we’ve got with transport at the moment are really more about public perception.
“An awful lot of people would be better off coming in by public transport, they just don’t perceive that at the moment, and it’s because the system is still not reliable.
“Certainly, the tube isn’t reliable, and buses are better, but not that much better, there is a feeling about personal safety on buses.”
But the facts are that the Tube is improving, massive amounts of money are being invested, there are more buses and they are more reliable.
Ken Livingstone has managed to convince his London voters that there is more money going into transport.
Boff does not argue with that, but says the money is not being spent properly.
“It’s about returns, it’s pretty much the same argument about the National Health Service, huge amount of money thrown into it, but only a couple of percent improvement in performance.
“When that happens, you have to start thinking perhaps the very way in which we’re spending the money is wrong, the way in which we are providing the service is wrong.
“This will be talked about so much in the next few years: the bendy bus.
“There’s an example of wanting to tick that box, about providing more buses, and getting more people on buses. So what did they do?
“They went all around the world, to look at all the cities in the world – none of which are like London, because there is no place like London – and they buy a bus in, which all of a sudden starts to blow up, burst into flames, force cyclists off the road – I know this from personal experience, so I’m not making this up – and it’s an appalling thing to impose upon Londoners.
“What is it about the decision-making process that led us to believe that something which might work in Amsterdam would work in London?
“What I’ll be doing is saying let’s do what we did with the Routemaster.
“I’m not saying, ‘lets bring back the Routemaster,’ because the Routemaster was dangerous, and it was not accessible for disabled people – it was an icon of exclusion to disabled people.
“Let’s take the process we adopted when we got the Routemaster, and do it again, and that is, build a bus for London.
“Don’t just import something. Actually design a bus for London. For goodness sake, we’re big enough to be able to justify the expense of designing something specifically for this city.”
Boff contrasts with rival Tory Boris Johnson in a number of ways.
“I’m a Londoner born and bred. When I was born, it was actually Middlesex, in 1958, Uxbridge was in Middlesex, but my mum and dad are both Londoners, my mum was from the East End, and we’re a London family.”
Both men have in common a love of cycling.
Boff ran for Mayor of Hackney in 2006 and is a former leader of Hillingdon council.
In another stark contrast to the Oxford and Eton old boy Boris, Boff was educated at a secondary modern school and a former polytechnic.
“It’s a university now,” he adds proudly.
No doubt there will be few references to “Boris Johnson, heterosexual and candidate for Mayor of London” in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winner at the end of September, but Boff will, of course, forever be the gay one.
As the rest of the media just state the fact, I resolved to find out about his journey from the closet to living an openly gay life.
“I kind of knew from the age of … probably ’74, ’75, ’76 onwards … I didn’t get out much, I went through that funny old stage gay people do.
“The first gay club I ever went into was in Edinburgh, because everywhere else, I thought somebody would see me go in.
“I had to move away from London, but Edinburgh was the next best thing, I suppose, at the time it was.
“I remember this huge, cavernous club called Fire Island, and I went up to the Edinburgh Festival and discovered this place.
“Coming out is a long, slow process – you have to come out to yourself, you’re curious, then you come out to friends, and often family are last, then you come out to colleagues and all the rest of it.
“Some people have very bad experiences, a friend of mine at the moment, young lad, he’s just come out to his parents, and it hasn’t been the kind of response that he expected. Everyone said ‘no, they won’t mind at all.’ Actually they did.
“Most people’s experience is that it’s a huge anti-climax, it’s a fantastic anti-climax.
“An old friend of mine, I finally said ‘I’m gay’ and he said ‘We knew before you did.'”
While David Cameron may be keen to show his gay credentials, it cannot be denied that the majority of his MPs are less homo-friendly.
A recent report from the Liberal Democrats revealed that 80% of Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet has voted against gay rights.
Boff joined the Conservative party in the 1970s, and stayed in it as, in government, they targeted, belittled and demeaned gay people and consistently refused us our rights. Why?
“I know this sounds very airy fairy, and perhaps it may not ring true to many people who read PinkNews.co.uk, but I went to the Conservative party back in the mid 1970s because I believe that if Conservative party is not about liberation, it’s about nothing.
“I actually think that the Conservative party is not just a bunch of prejudices, like the Labour party is now.
“Labour has effectively dumped its beliefs in order to assemble around itself a collection of policies that they’ve polled to see how popular they are, rather that having any actual bottom for their policies.
“I feel so sorry for socialists now, that they have to bite their lip and say ‘vote Labour,’ but they know that they’re more likely to get their aspirations by voting for me than voting for Ken.
“The Conservative party has changed, but people’s perceptions lag by a decade or two.
“People still consider the Labour party the party of the working man, and that is the funniest thing on earth.
“The Conservative party, from time to time, misses the point, like all parties. There’s those of us who work within the party, and have tried for many years to get it back on track.
“It’s not a party about the rich, it’s not a party about promoting the interests of a particular class, it’s a party about opportunity, liberation and allowing people to achieve the most. If we aren’t that, then we really are nothing.”
Boff lives in east London with his partner of 14 years. They were one of the first couples in London to form a civil partnership.
He admits his partner, a teacher, loathes the political limelight but has learned to live with it.
“The funny thing is we’re all used to coming out, but people like myself, we have to come out as Tories, and sometimes, that can be really tough,” he adds, only half-joking.
Boff says he hardly ever comes into central London since he and his partner settled in Hackney.
He thinks that one of the big problems for London politicians is trying to keep in mind that not everyone lives in the centre.
“There is this psychology about everything – everybody’s logo for this election will have a picture of Big Ben, or the wheel, or the testicle. (A reference to London City Hall).
“That’s a tiny part of London. People will be obsessed with the congestion charge – it affects a tiny part of London.
“What we really want to do is find out what kind of services are being provided in the outer London boroughs, how they feel about being disengaged, how they feel about all the decisions being made, sometimes as much as twenty miles away, by somebody who’s never been there.
“There’s this interesting quote that Roger Evans, one of our GLA members, came up with, and as far as I know, it’s completely true.
“Ken has visited Havana more than he has visited the outer London borough of Havering.
“Ken is a zone one mayor, he loves zone one, he loves the importance of the City Hall, which as far as I’m concerned should be turned into something else – it would make a good venue for G-A-Y.
“It’s doing bugger all good where it is.
“Ken loves travelling around the world saying ‘I am the representative of London’, and he’s one of those people who goes on about ‘putting London on the map,’ like you need to put London on a map.
“Go to Ouagadougou, they know where London is, everyone knows where London is, I mean, it’s just bizarre and ridiculous.
“I would get rightly pissed off, if I was in Havering, and I realised that the London Development Agency was forcing inappropriate housing developments or transport developments in my borough, and the mayor’s never been there.”
Londoners are fortunate to live in one of the most tolerant cities in the world, and Ken has made his public support for the gay community very clear.
He has financially supported gay Pride celebrations in the city and makes sure he is front and centre at the parade.
Boff looks forward to a time when being gay becomes less and less important.
“It’s truly remarkable, the acceptance now that there is, and we will almost achieve that objective, which I’ve always had, which I know a lot of other people have had, of being as boring as everyone else.
“Some people who come out want to use that to define themselves, and they’re finding it very difficult in a world that doesn’t care any more – not doesn’t care, but doesn’t think it’s particularly a special thing any more, and that’s great.
“But my concerns are out on the housing estates, on the street corners, where the kids are, where they’ve got nothing to do, they’re turning to crime, because now, coming on to fifty years, young people haven’t had the kind of investment that they need, and we are letting them down big time.
“And there is one thing, one strategic thing, which is to turn around this appalling waste of young people that we have.
“I’ve seen it too many times, where we dump them. I would much rather be spending my time addressing those problems than planning parties.”