April 8, 2012 9:22 pm

Johnson fires shot across Cameron’s bows

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, has fired a shot across David Cameron’s bows by vowing to fight any attempt by the government to use a new “cabinet of mayors” to impose its policies on directly elected city leaders.

The prime minister last month announced the launch of a City Mayors Cabinet, which would meet with him at least twice a year to “share ideas and highlight innovation”.

However, Mr Johnson, the Conservative mayoral candidate who is fighting for re-election on May 3, raised the spectre of the government using the forum to exert its influence.

“We would want to resist anything that involved a government attempt to get mayoralties into a room and control them,” he told the Financial Times. “[They] are an organic expression of citizens’ wills in the cities they represent. They’re not there to be put round a table by central government and told what to do.”

It is not the first time Mr Johnson – regarded by many Tories as a potential successor to Mr Cameron – has challenged the Conservative leader over government policy. Last year he raised fears over the impact of the government’s housing benefit cap; described as “lily-livered” the coalition’s failure to toughen strike laws; and defended bankers when other senior Tories were attacking them.

Tory strategists accept that Mr Johnson’s electoral popularity – amid a closely fought contest for the London mayoralty – depends partly on his ability to distance himself from Westminster.

Ten cities including Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester will vote on May 3 to decide whether to have directly elected mayors. Elections for those that consent are set to follow on November 15.

Lord Heseltine, a champion of devolved government, has argued that elected mayors would form a new power elite in British politics. “Mayors of the future will be more important than cabinet ministers today. It would be a more demanding and more exciting job than half of the cabinet.”

Mr Johnson, who with more than 1m votes has the biggest personal mandate in British history, agreed with the former Tory minister. “The mayor of London has more executive power than virtually any cabinet minister I can think of in terms of the ability to get things done and push projects through.”

A senior government insider said the mayoral cabinet meetings would have the “opposite effect” of that implied by Mr Johnson in that they would give access to the prime minister of the sort that other cities could currently “only dream about”.

“The direct access that Ken Livingstone and Boris have established to the government over the last 12 years is impressive and it tends to be them telling Downing St what they want rather than the other way around,” he said.

A spokesman from the Department of Communities and Local Government said: “As with the Mayor of London, we expect that mayors will not hold back in saying around the cabinet table exactly what they want for the people they have a personal mandate to represent.”

However, Ed Cox, director of IPPR North, an independent think-tank, said local government was still not taken seriously in Westminster. “The fact that the prime minister chose in his speech to focus on the opportunity for mayors to have an entrée to Downing Street only reveals how centrist the government remains in its thinking.”

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