We have all seen the cartoons, but has anyone seen the man?
After successive appearances from both Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick on Radio 4's 'Any Questions' I was looking forward to Boris Johnson going through a similar public grilling. However, all my hopes were dashed when it was announced that Boris had well and truly bottled it.
Jonathan Dimbleby told the audience of the popular BBC radio show that:
"inevitably we asked the other leading candidate Boris Johnson, if he would like to join the programme, and he declined, saying that he didn't wish to discuss national issues while he was concentrating on the London Mayoral election."
Now quite aside from the extraordinary nature of Boris not wanting to appear on a panel show, this is quite unbelievable. Here we have a man who may soon be the most powerful Conservative politician in the land, who could be a regular feature on both the national and the international stage, and yet he is too scared to submit himself to even a fraction of the scrutiny that he will face if he becomes London Mayor.
There have been reports here and here of Boris being hidden from the press, and other reports that he is being kept off the booze. But are we now facing the serious possibility that Boris could pedal into City Hall without undertaking any serious public scrutiny at all?
Coverage of the mayoral elections has so far been entirely dominated by allegations of cronyism from the Evening Standard and their pals, with the occasional light relief of Boris planting trees and chatting to bus drivers. But on all the key issues that the capital faces, there has been almost no serious analysis of what the different candidates are offering.
But even more important than policies is the question of whether these three men can do the job. Brian Paddick is a celebrated police chief who is willing to make brave decisions and to answer to the consequences. Similarly, Ken Livingstone has put in place radical and controversial policies and has faced his critics head-on from day one. And then we have Boris.
Boris can cope with reading a speech or making a video. He has even managed to bluster his way through the occasional interview. But when it comes to facing point by point, issue by issue scrutiny, Boris is just completely and irreversibly sunk.
Demonstration of this can be found in today's Independent where Johann Hari interviews each candidate on gay issues. Paddick puts in a workmanlike performance, and Livingstone is as ever totally on the ball. But when it comes to Boris, Hari is astounded by his lack of knowledge:
"on all the questions, he seems to go into a sort of panicked free association where he desperately tries to find a link to something he knows about. When I ask him what he would do to reduce the sky-high rate of suicide among gay teenagers, he starts talking about the need to get kids out of gangs."
Even on his own voting record, the Henley MP was lost at sea. When asked why he voted to support Section 28, Boris appeared unsure as to what exactly that vote was all about. By the end of the interview Hari was left with little more than a few gags to fill the article.
The problem for Boris and for London is that there is only so much bendy buses and conductors can do for you and at some point over a term as mayor, some other questions just might come up. And whether you like Boris or not, this election could leave his clumsy hands on one of the most powerful and wealthy cities in the world.
And when the camera crews have gone and his office door has swung shut, we could be left with a very lost and helpless man looking out over London.
---UPDATE--- Clues as to why Boris is being kept off the airwaves can be found at Dave Hill's 'Live' Blog of the mayoral hustings