The London mayor, Boris Johnson, will fly to the US on Sunday for a six-day east coast tour, his second trip across the Atlantic in three months, and his third long-haul mission on City Hall business since December.
The Tory mayor – who is not standing for re-election when his term of office expires in 2016 and will instead be the candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the general election – also flew to Kurdistan last month where he was pictured taking aim with an AK-47 alongside peshmerga troops training to fight Islamic State (Isis) and went on a six-day trade mission to Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore at the end of 2014.
He has also spent plenty of time in England campaigning for the Conservatives. Records released under the Freedom of Information Act show that in just 10 months last year Johnson undertook 95 party political engagements, including campaigning for Tory candidates in Swindon, Bath and Staffordshire.
Next week Johnson will tap into US power bases with meetings at Harvard and MIT in Boston, with the mayor of New York in Manhattan and then on to a Congressional reception in Washington DC.
In October he also managed to squeeze in a three-day stay in Umbria in Italy paid for by Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Independent and the London Evening Standard.
It’s fortunate he’s a part-time mayor because every time he interferes it makes things worse. But London needs someone to address the housing problem, the bus strike and transport infrastructure.
Christian Wolmar, potential Labour mayoral candidate
The number of engagements outside London, both at home and abroad, has raised concerns among Johnson’s political opponents that he is taking his eye off a deepening housing crisis in a city that this week was hit by transport strikes and continuing concerns over the capital’s regulation-busting air quality.
Len Duvall, Labour leader in the London assembly, has concluded: “It’s clear Boris has mentally checked out of City Hall.”
Not true, said Johnson’s team. His US trip features meetings with the New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, and a press conference with the Smithsonian, the Washington DC cultural institution that Johnson hopes will set up a branch at the Olympic Park in east London.
“It works,” a source close to the mayor said of Johnson’s trips. “It brings big returns, at a fraction of what Ken [Livingstone] spent doing exactly the same. It’s what mayors do.”
But opponents accuse him of grandstanding to build a statesmanlike reputation to serve him for his next job in politics and the distractions from London business only look likely to grow as the general election nears and with it Johnson’s probable return to parliament as the Conservative MP for Uxbridge.
Grant Shapps, the Tory election co-ordinator, has asked him to “play a huge part” in the campaign, even though when Johnson retained the mayoralty in 2012 he pledged that meeting his goals for London “cannot be combined with any other political capacity”.
Johnson’s tour last month of a West Yorkshire factory making exhaust clamps for buses was one example of a political engagement with little obvious benefit to London.
One justification for the 220-mile trek to Keighley – that the components feature on London buses – seemed suspiciously tenuous but the greater purpose was the man next to him: the Conservative minister and local MP Kris Hopkins, who faces possible defeat by Labour at the general election.
Johnson has also campaigned for his party’s hardest-pushed candidates, pulling pints for the cameras in Pendle, lobbying for free car parks in Corby and visiting a tannery in Northampton. He has also made trips to St Albans and Leeds. Johnson appears to be building a power base for a widely expected tilt at the party leadership should David Cameron wobble.
The mayor is paid a salary of £143,911 a year and Labour has now called for the Conservatives to reimburse London taxpayers for the days Johnson is absent from the city to campaign in the general election.
“The mayoralty is an increasingly powerful and important role,” said Duvall. “It shouldn’t be treated as a mere stepping stone to help build a public profile. London doesn’t need an empty-chair mayor.”
Christian Wolmar, who is bidding to become Labour’s candidate, said: “It’s fortunate he’s a part-time mayor because every time he interferes it makes things worse. But London needs someone to address the housing problem, the bus strike and transport infrastructure.”
The mayor’s camp maintains that criticism of his activities is unfounded.
“It’s nonsense,” said a source close to Johnson. “The vast majority of stuff he does every year is in London and about London in his role as mayor. Of course he does some campaigning – he’s a senior politician. The cabinet, the shadow cabinet, they all do the same and more. As for the trips, that’s his job. They were planned years back.”
Johnson is not alone among London politicians in heading out to campaign.
“It is less justifiable when he flits off abroad,” said Jenny Jones, a Green party representative at City Hall who is also campaigning nationally. “I feel he is lining himself up to be a global statesman when what we need is a London mayor on the case. Since the beginning in London he has never done his homework. He has left it to other people to do the governing.”
The mayor’s official spokesman said: “Next week’s trade visit to the United States, as with recent visits to Kurdistan and the far east, are official mayoral visits, often at the invitation of relevant governments or city leaders.
“They are supported by the UK government, the Foreign Office, UKTI [UK Trade & Investment], and London & Partners [London’s PR company]. Each trip is focused on driving investment for London and for British business and have delivered substantial results for London and for UK plc.”
The mayor’s office has not published the details of the 95 political engagements he undertook from January to October last year but said they ranged from phone calls to colleagues on political matters to full-scale campaigning.
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