EXCLUSIVE: Boris Johnson courts gay vote
When I meet Boris Johnson in a Westminster cafe for his PinkNews.co.uk interview, it becomes apparent, immediately after he shambles in and launches himself into a chair, that 10am is not optimum Boris time.
As he puts it in his diary of the 2001 election campaign, Friends, Voters, Countrymen, it is “a pretty ungodly hour for someone accustomed to journalism.”
The interview had been in the pipeline well before Labour activists started taking swipes at him over his views on everything from civil partnerships to climate change.
In fact, the day after Boris announced his candidacy amid chaotic scenes outside City Hall several weeks ago, his press officer enthusiastically agreed to an interview with PinkNews.co.uk
The month of August intervened, and when we finally sit down to talk about his views on gays and gay issues, he has been roundly condemned as hostile to the LGBT community by left-wing groups nervous about his bid for the Conservative party nomination for Mayor of London.
In many ways he is reminiscent of Michael Foot – sartorially shambolic, though the suits have got better – and the general impression of not really caring about bourgeois concerns like neatness.
In the words of one critic, he looks like he has to keep a pitchfork in his back pocket to deal with his straw-coloured mess of hair.
He also has that vagueness that Foot possessed. Many of Boris’ stream of consciousness responses trail off or come to a sudden stop, but there is an impressive intelligence to his answers.
One thing is for certain – he is not afraid to question measures that some gay people take as an article of faith – a new law of incitement to homophobic hatred among them.
43-year-old Boris – the ‘Johnson’ seems somehow redundant – is one of four candidates for the Conservative party nomination for Mayor of London.
Andrew Boff, an IT consultant and publisher, joins Kensington Chelsea councillors Warwick Lightfoot and Victoria Borwick in the contest, which has been opened up to the public for the first time.
All Londoners on the electoral register are eligible to vote by phone or postal ballot.
This “open primary” of voters closes on 26th September and the Tory candidate will be announced soon after.
Boris, the clear front-runner, stakes out his message to London’s gay community pretty clearly – he is a libertarian.
He thinks Section 28 was a bad idea, he voted in favour of civil partnerships and he will “fight against” homophobic attacks.
That probably means he will attempt to use his powers to combat them, but could just as easily mean he will pile in, head first, to bash the homophobes himself.
That’s the thing about Boris. He claims he is always being misinterpreted.
The many hundreds of articles he wrote in his years as a rightwing journalist and columnist do give his opponents easy pickings, he admits.
“I am on record with loads of provocative articles about loads of things, but if you take the article as a whole, they always amount to robust common sense,” he claims.
He laments the tactics of Labour activists, who have pre-empted even his selection as Tory candidate by producing a 17-page document highlighting a range of those provocative statements from his pre-2001 journalism.
One quote in particular, taken from his 2001 book Friends, Voters, Countrymen, has angered and upset many gay people:
“If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.”
This infamous passage actually refers to an incident where Boris was jogging and was verbally assaulted by “three youths.”
He challenges them, they respond that they had formed a bad impression of him from a TV appearance, and he wonders if comments he once made on BBC current affairs programme Question Time (see above) were the reason they disliked him.
“What I was saying was that I am generally a libertarian,” is Boris’ response.
“What they are trying to do is they are trying to invent a character or create a turnip ghost, a kind of scarecrow figure they can attack because its much more convenient to have some sort of crypto-fascist, foam-flecked, Norman Tebbit-type Tory instead of me.
“They have gone back through thousands of articles, millions of words, to try to find a few phrases that they can take out of context to demonstrate I am something that I am not.”
But clearly comparing a loving gay relationship with “three men and a dog” is in any context insulting.
He disagrees, and denies that such comments imply that civil partnerships are not equal to marriage and are instead are just a sort of contract.
“No, no, no, no, no,” insists Boris.
“I am genuine – I come from a family, I have Muslim ancestors, my ancestors believed in polygamy and I believe in loving relationships between all sorts of people to be valid, I really do.”
He pauses for a moment, suddenly aware that he might have caused even more outrage.
“I don’t want to get myself into more trouble than I need to be,” he adds.
“I am in favour of civil partnerships and I voted in favour of them.
“I was cycling up Shaftesbury Avenue the other day and there were two guys in a rickshaw who had just got married and they said, “Hey Boris we just got married” and it was wonderful.”
On Section 28, which in fairness he did vote to repeal on one occasion, the incumbent Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has directly attacked his record.
“He struck a stance in support of the anti-lesbian and gay Section 28 and now wishes to be seen as supporting London’s diversity,” Ken said. Again, in this race, the ‘Livingstone’ also feels slightly redundant.
The aforementioned 17-page report from left-leaning think tank Compass also highlighted some comments from Boris, written before he became MP for Henley in 2001 that appear to support the aims of Section 28.
“Slowly Labour is winning the battle it really cares about, the Kulturkampf, adjusting what can be said, and what cannot be said… Homosexuality is to be taught in schools.” The Spectator 29 April 2000.
“I am not sure how widespread this new right-on mood really is. Metropolitan opinion was wrong-footed over Section 28.” The Spectator 29 April 2000
Boris accepts the historic anger of gay people over towards the Tories over Section 28.
“I disliked all that (the way the Tories acted in the 1980s) and what I disliked about it was the way they were trying to whip up people’s feeling of identification with the Tories by trying to make them hostile to another group.
“I hate all that stuff. In a way this is also my objection to the way the current incumbent is running London. It’s all about trying to build up loyalty by trying to bash other groups.”
I suggest that this would be a perfect opportunity to apologise to the gay community for Section 28.
Surprisingly, given that he has probably apologised more times than any other mainstream politician, he rejects this relatively easy option.
“I hate all this gesture politics. I am not convinced of the political value of endlessly apologising to absolutely everyone.
“On Section 28, what it was trying to do, what the whole argument was really about was about homophobia and tolerance.
“It wasn’t really about the practicalities – it was about what you thought about it. It wasn’t ideological – it was personal and I dislike it because I think all human hatreds are, when you dissect them, all irrational human hatreds are always really about your own feelings about yourself in some way.
“Anyway I think it’s all bollocks and the sooner we get over it the better.”
The existence of LGBT liaison officers within the police seemed to be news to Boris, but he is keen to praise the Met generally.
“I didn’t know about those community support officers working specifically with the gay community but I’m in favour of safe neighbourhood teams and teams of community support officers that work with communities of all kinds.
“I think it’s a fantastic way of improving everybody’s sense of security on the streets of London.”
Many groups, among them Stonewall, argue that attacks motivated by hatred of gay people should be covered by a new homophobic hate crime law.
Boris takes a different view on the likely effects of such a law, especially on people’s right to criticise homosexuality.
“Of course I want everybody to feel safe, and I deplore homophobic attacks, I think they’re outrageous and disgusting and I will fight against them if I’m lucky enough to be Mayor.
“The point I’m trying to make to you is I loathe acts that encourage hatred of groups. But sometimes the very measures we take can kind of stir things up rather than produce harmony.
“What I worry about is that you have erosions in free speech that I don’t think anyone in the gay community would ultimately support. We are all basically, what we want is for people to debate freely and rationally and not to succumb to bigotry.”
Ken has, of course, been very vocal in his support for the gay community.
Boris says that funding for Pride London will continue if he becomes Mayor (“The idea of gay Pride seems very good. Right on!”) and the community generally is one he stresses his support for.
“London has a fantastic record of being attractive to gays around the world and being a place gays feel they can come and be safe and where they will have a tolerant society. That’s what I want.”
He even tacitly agrees that the office can be used to encourage other cities to become involved with the global struggle for gay equality, while making clear he will not have a “foreign policy” like Ken Livingstone.
“I’m not in favour of the Mayor intervening on every matter of global controversy but yeah I think there are things he can do to improve people’s lives elsewhere.”
A lot has been written about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s background.
Eton and Oxford-educated, he has been close to party leader David Cameron since university.
The seemingly bumbling Boris has been editor of The Spectator, Brussels correspondent and later a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, and MP for Henley since 2001.
Michael Howard fired him from the frontbench in 2004 amid accusations he lied about his extra-marital affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt.
Brought back to frontline politics by Cameron, he has proved popular as shadow higher education minister.
His many TV appearances have added to the public perception of Boris as a sort of Bertie Wooster-ish genial buffoon, but that convenient caricature conceals an ambitious political animal.
He did not bumble into a high-profile political career – indeed in his 2001 diary of his campaign for Parliament, he says he “always knew” he would become an MP.
Despite his early ambition, he smoked cannabis in his youth.
Today he takes a traditional Tory line on London’s established drug culture.
“I’m deeply against drugs. I loathe them. I think they destroy lives and they’ve changed since my last experiences of cannabis, which were a long time ago.
“I don’t want the police to concentrate on rifling through the sock drawer of every student in the hope of finding a rabbit dropping of cannabis resin.
“I think if they do find it they should take action and I don’t think they should be tolerant but what we want are serious crimes to be dealt with as well, and that was the point I was trying to make about cannabis.
“I have to accept as someone who took it years ago is that the drug has changed and it’s far more potent and everything I read now tells me it has much more damaging psychotropic effects and it’s a much more effective gateway drug than it used to be.
“I think most people strongly disapprove of drug culture. I don’t think anybody really wants to see London turning into anything like Amsterdam was a few years ago, last time I was there, with a really sleazy atmosphere and lots of places really suffering from the tolerance of drugs.”
A few months ago, the smart money was on another Cameron ally, Nick Boles, winning the Tory nomination for Mayor of London.
Unfortunately, Boles dropped out unexpectedly when he was diagnosed with cancer, from which he is expected to make a full recovery.
Boris denies his very late entry into the race was David Cameron’s idea, and claims he had thought of running for Mayor before Nick Boles withdrew from contention.
“I wont deny it had crossed my mind but I am a friend of Nick and a supporter of Nick and I was very, very sad when he had to pull out – and he encouraged me to do it.”
As for his own credentials, as the only candidate for the Tory nomination never to serve in local government in the capital, he has come under fire as a carpetbagger.
“Well I’ve always loved London.
“I’ve always thought London was a fantastic place. I lived in London on and off most of my life.
“And I remember when the idea (of an elected London Mayor) was mooted years ago by my predecessor, actually, Michael Heseltine, thinking my God that’s a good idea – we do need a spokesman, the place does need a voice.”
A voice silenced by Margaret Thatcher when she abolished the Greater London Council.
“I think it is a bit unfair to blame me. I was at school.”
It’s a fair point. Boris is well known for his devotion to cycling around London, but of late he has been more concerned with buses.
“I do take the bus when my bike is stolen, as I take the tube. I normally, every day I ride a bike. I’ve taken all sorts of buses across London recently.
“I used to take the 277 every day. I used to get off at Canary Wharf, with my friend Yvette Cooper (now the housing minister).
“She used to sit next to me on the top deck. Me and Yvette Cooper – God, we used to slug each other, we’d have these ferocious arguments.”
Boris has made some strong statements about safety on buses, a big issue for many Londoners instinctively scared of gangs of teenagers who get free travel.
His law and order stance is designed to appeal both to natural Tories and older voters.
“Most under sixteens are great kids, but there is a problem,” says Boris, warming to his theme.
Weeks of meeting disgruntled bus passengers has galvanised his view that this issue is a vote-winner.
“Travelling around London quite a lot on the buses, talking to loads of, particularly elderly people, it’s the biggest issue that’s being raised with me at the moment.
“And this is something that’s directly in the power of the Mayor to sort out.
“I don’t understand why people say the office of Mayor holds no power – he has huge direct power over things like that and there are things I could do immediately if I was lucky enough to get the job on day one I think to elevate the problem of kids abusing their privileges.
“We should take away their right to free travel if they are abusing it and we should take it away for a good long time and that would be a good deterrent.”
Of course a policy towards youth crime and unemployment needs to be as much stick as carrot.
Boris is on-message with his proposed solutions for London’s disenfranchised teenagers, echoing the sentiments of new Tories such as Shaun Bailey, the party’s candidate in the Hammersmith parliamentary seat.
His suggestions range from male role models to old-fashioned respect for authority.
“When I was a child there was a real difference between children and adults from the one that there is now.
“I mean there was no question. When I was a child all adults were given automatic respect, I don’t mean to exaggerate but you know what I’m driving at, it was a different thing.
“There was more nervousness of adults, people were reluctant to shout at adults to insult them, children are much more confident about things today, which in some ways is a good thing – I’m not saying all the change has been completely bad.
“Because in many ways it’s been a liberation, but the trouble is that there are too many kids that simply don’t have any understanding of what the boundaries are in their lives.
“They don’t have any rules, they don’t have any figures of respect, they don’t have any role models that they can identify with, they don’t have any idea of what it might be to be a grown up human being with a productive interest in the rest of his or her society.”
Boris has been heavily criticised for his comments on race.
References to “smiling piccaninnies” in some of his journalism have been used as evidence of his unfitness to lead multicultural London.
Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen, has condemned his candidacy.
None of this stops Boris from offering advice to the city’s ethnic communities suffering from gang violence.
“There are considerable funds available to the Mayor, to support wonderful organisations like Kids Company, which is run by Camilla Batmanghelidjh, which has 11,000 children on its books and they are working with children who could so easily turn to crime and they’re giving them an alternative vision of their futures.
“And they are saying ‘you don’t have to be like your older brothers, you don’t have to be like your uncles, you don’t have to feel so frightened about the world that you have to be in gang, there are other ways of being successful than just having this or that tracksuit of pair of trainers’ and that’s the way forward.
“I think you’ve got to work with the kids when they’re a very young age, you’ve got to work with the parents and I think that there is great scope for expanding the whole safer neighbourhoods idea and using the networks that are being built up to reach out into every part of the community.
“Also I think the Mayor has a big job, and a potentially wonderful change we could have, is to get more males, black, white, don’t care, teaching in primary schools, in London. And the ratio now is really dismal.
“It would make a huge difference I think to young males positive self-identification, if they saw someone teaching them who they could identify with.
“I think that young males learn in a different way from young girls – young males learn in a quite competitive way sometimes and they want to pit their wits against the teacher and if they see a male teacher that they can identify with and they think that’s a figure of respect and he knows things and I want to be like that, then that’s a fantastic thing.
“I would love to see far more black male graduates particularly.”
Boris’ comments about Papua New Guinea being over-run with cannibals caused anger, while an article he published while editor of The Spectator accusing Liverpool of wallowing in “vicarious victimhood” forced him to make a personal visit to the city to apologise.
Londoners seem split between those who think Boris’ gaffes would make the city a more interesting place and others who cringe at the thought of the havoc his well-established ability to say the wrong thing might unleash.
“I don’t like the term gaffes anyway but I reserve the right to keep a sense of humour,” he says.
“I think it would be a good thing for a lot of us if we keep a sense of humour about some things.
“But please don’t be in any doubt about the seriousness with which I’m approaching this. I’m fighting extremely hard. I’m trying very hard to get the Conservative nomination now and I hope I can win next year.”
One of Boris’ opponents for that nomination, Andrew Boff, expressed the Tory party’s antagonism to the Mayoral organisation that Ken Livingstone has built around himself as London’s figurehead by suggesting that City Hall be turned into a gay club.
Boris does not make quite such a generous offer, but still has a message for the gay community.
“I certainly think that are substantial savings that can be made in City Hall and I’m going to make them, I hope, if I get elected, and I look forward to using the proceeds for all sorts of wonderful things for Londoners
“But I think primarily what most people in the gay community would want is a greater sense of security on the streets, better transport and they’d want people to have better access to housing.
“I think the gay community has got enough energy and enterprise to build its own club, another big club, without some subsidy from me.”
We asked Boris quick-fire questions about his London. Here are his not very quick responses.
Let’s talk about your favourite places in London.
Oh man, then I’m just going to cheese off everybody else that’s the trouble. Everything I say causes immediate anger.
There are a couple of cheese shops that I’m not going to name for fear of causing a riot. I mean London is incredible, one of the reasons doing this would be so exciting if you think how much better it is from the city I grew up in.
We never had shops selling cheese like this from all over the world. The quality of the food is so much better, the quality of the restaurants is so much better. Everything is wonderful, well not everything is wonderful – that’s what I hope to improve but it is a joyous place now.
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I do see a lot of it. My favourite street is Shaftesbury Avenue, without the traffic. It’s beautiful sometimes. So many people are frightened of it (cycling) but I think roads in London are safer than roads in the countryside. You’d be mad to cycle in the countryside.
The other thing is that people get their bikes stolen and that is something that I can crack down on and I will crack down on. People snigger about them (decoy bikes) but it will make a huge difference.
My favourite bridge is Hammersmith bridge.
The British Museum.