By Matthew Barrett
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It must be close to the next London mayoral election: Boris Johnson is distancing himself from the Government.
In this morning's papers, Boris has said two things of note. Firstly, he disassociated himself from this week's Budget, telling the Guardian:
"It may be some aspects of the budget are not going down very well. I am not convinced that I will be necessarily associated with those measures. It is not my blooming budget and it is not necessarily one that I would have written. There is plenty we can do in London to help the poorest and the needy."
This is heavily cushioned by caveats. He wouldn't "necessarily" have written it (but he might have done), and "aspects of the budget are not going down very well" (but that doesn't signal his disagreement with them). Nevertheless, the message is clear. The Guardian interview also says:
"he was also unapologetic about the way he campaigned for a cut in the 50p top rate of income tax in this week's budget… However, he did not defend George Osborne's so-called "granny tax", saying: "I am not the chancellor of the exchequer. I did not write the budget.""
Boris couldn't really be expected to say anything else. He has attacked the Government for its position on Europe, and caused trouble on phone hacking, HS2, and Ministers being "lily-livered" in refusing to challenge striking unions. Boris will want to maintain the quiet polling advantage he is building over Ken Livingstone, thanks to the latter's own supporters abandoning him.
The second, and more policy-focused comment Boris made to the Guardian was this (emphasis mine):
"The biggest shock for me from the riots was the sheer sense of nihilism – perhaps I should not have been shocked, but in my view literacy and numeracy are the best places to start. In seven particular boroughs in London one in four children are leaving functionally illiterate. In a few schools it is nearer 50%. We have to intervene at an earlier stage, and I think the mayor can help."
This is later qualified: "He insists he is not involved in a power grab against the education secretary, Michael Gove, or seeking to reintroduce the Inner London Education Authority, abolished by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s." Despite that insistance, Boris' scheme would clearly come into some sort of conflict with central government if he seeks to create early interventions services of some description. Rather than a serious independent proposal, though, Boris may have been reacting to Ken Livingstone's comments to the Evening Standard on Thursday, which said:
"Mr Livingstone, 66, added: “I would actually declare independence and run the whole city. They can’t even run hospitals in London. Everything government does in London it gets wrong. If you look at the city of New York, the mayor runs the benefits system, some of the prisons even, and the healthcare and schools … I would always say… devolve more down. I’d like to take over our NHS immediately. I would like to take over a major house-building programme, I’d like to run the benefits system.”"
Boris adopting a limited version of one of Livingstone's more radical proposals allows the incumbent mayor to minimise the policy differences between the two, and thereby keep the election focused on Livingstone's exotic tax arrangements and various other controversial parts of his record, and, most importantly, the former mayor's competency for office.