What a Boris Johnson premiership could mean for the voluntary sector

At heart he's 'a metropolitan liberal', says one sector insider who worked with Johnson; another advises that he doesn't do detail, but prefers an uplifting vision

Boris Johnson (Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson (Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

< This article has been updated; see final paragraph 

So Boris Johnson has become the leader of the Conservative Party and therefore the next Prime Minister.

The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and former Mayor of London has campaigned hard on a tough Brexit stance, as would be expected from a key member of the leave campaign in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum.

But he has steered clear of making many promises of direct interest to the voluntary sector during his leadership campaign, preferring to focus on issues including higher-rate tax, transport infrastructure and rural broadband. 

During his time as Mayor of London, Johnson backed the doomed Garden Bridge project, which saw more than £50m of public funds being spent without a stone being laid and was subsequently branded a "failure for charity" by the Charity Commission.

But what should the voluntary sector expect from Johnson?

Asheem Singh, director of economics, enterprise and manufacturing at the RSA, was a policy adviser to Johnson in the early days of his London mayoralty in 2008.

"I never found him to be anything other than a perfectly courteous, good boss who listened," he says. "Although back then he was more of a bon viveur journalist trying to come to terms with being a politician."

Singh suspects Johnson has adopted a right-wing stance to win the party leadership and that he is "at heart a metropolitan liberal" who works collegiately through a close network of trusted advisers.

Nevertheless, Singh doesn't expect Johnson to be interested in the minutiae of voluntary sector politics and his main advice to charities wanting to be heard is to mobilise their high-net-worth donors.

"Boris is someone who listens to business," he says, "though I suspect it's not his ear you'll have to bend first but the ear of an adviser to whom he has delegated authority."

The Mayor's Fund for London, which Johnson set up, offers some insights into his approach to charities, says Singh, because it bypassed existing charities and relied heavily on wealthy donors.

Duncan Shrubsole was director of policy and external affairs at the homelessness charity Crisis when it secured a commitment from Johnson to end rough sleeping during hustings for the 2008 mayoralty.

This led to a productive, long-term relationship with Richard Blakeway, who became Johnson's director of housing.

"We never quite knew how much Boris knew or cared," says Shrubsole, who discovered this was not untypical.

"Everybody who dealt with him at City Hall said he always worked through his lieutenants.

"He likes doing things with a bit of a flourish, but he doesn't get involved in details."

Johnson subsequently appeared at Crisis events.

"They were utterly mad," says Shrubsole, who is now director of policy, communications and research at the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales.

"His team didn't know if he would turn up; he would just suddenly arrive on a bike. Nobody knew what he would say because he often went off-script."

Like Singh, he agrees that Johnson is more liberal than his current persona suggests and suggests that charities think carefully about how to approach him, particularly as he's "shown no natural affinity for the voluntary sector".

He says: "Don't position yourself on details. Position yourself on some headline-grabbing commitment. His attention span is tiny."

In terms of top level policy, Andrew O’Brien, director of external affairs at Social Enterprise UK, says Johnson has historically been in favour of big spending and infrastructure, so the sector might expect him to end austerity.

He says Johnson was a supporter of Ken Clarke and David Cameron and, as such, has historically been on the centre-left of the party, with his position on Brexit "a bit of an outlier".

But O’Brien warns that Johnson has a "strong libertarian impulse" when it comes to social policy.

"The review of the sugar tax is an early warning that Boris’s natural instinct on campaigns for greater government involvement in people’s personal lives is to say no," he said.

"So this might change the type of government intervention that the social sector campaigns on."

On the subject of how voluntary sector organisations might approach Johnson, O’Brien says he believes it is vision rather than detail that appeals to him. 

"But he also has a reputation for micro-management on hot-button issues," he says. "For example, when he was mayor he would take a lot of interest in particular aspects of policing.

"I think this indicates that if Boris thinks there is media interest, he will be interested in the detail and substance of what is going on.

"The best way to approach Boris is to think big and come from a view that is optimistic about people and business potential. I wouldn’t worry about the scale of what you are asking, but an uplifting story."

< This article has been updated now Boris Johnson has been confirmed as Conservative Party leader.

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