Monday, 7 July 2008

The Ray Lewis fiasco

When it comes to bad judgment, it’s looking like there will be few recent decisions in British government that will rival the Conservatives’ choice to appoint Ray Lewis as deputy mayor of London, holding him up as a shining example of the “new Conservative party.”

Last week’s whirlwind of accusations, denials and subsequent resignation have been a source of embarrassment for the new mayor, and may be a sign of things to come for the office, which was meant to be a showcase for what a Conservative government could do nationally in the UK.

It all started on Thursday, when Channel 4 first informed the mayor by phone that they were preparing a piece on Lewis after several Anglican Bishops informed the station that in the 1990’s, Lewis had been disrobed as an Anglican priest because of sexual and financial misconduct. They said Lewis had borrowed money from several parishioners – an act in itself rather inappropriate – and then left the country without paying it back.

What followed Channel 4's phone call to Johnson was one of the more embarrassing PR train wrecks I’ve seen unfold. Johnson staged a press conference with Lewis to preempt the story’s broadcast that evening, saying he had full confidence in Lewis and vociferously defending him. But one only had to watch Johnson’s face during the following question-and-answer session video below) to see the mayor was already realizing he had made a horrible mistake. As Lewis fielded questions, he started giving contradictory statements, first insisting he wasn’t aware that he had been disrobed and then saying something different. Following the press conference, Lewis did live interviews with Channel 4 and the BBC. I watched both interviews and literally gasped when I saw him say things to the BBC that directly contradicted things he said to Channel 4’s Jon Snow only moments earlier. Lewis was not only out and out lying about whether he knew he had been disrobed and the nature of what happened with the borrowed money, but he was doing so idiotically, directly contradicting what he had just said on live TV moments earlier on a different station.

By the next morning it was clear Lewis was going to have to go, and sure enough, there he was in front of the TV cameras again to announce his resignation, with Boris nowhere to be seen. Now it’s been revealed Boris is dropping the investigation he said he was launching Thursday. Little wonder. The extent of the allegations is just coming to light today, and this is surely something the Conservatives don't want to talk about any more. The charges include some pretty serious accusations of criminality, including:

-Accused in 1995 of failing to repay £41,000 that he borrowed-from three elderly and disabled parishioners.
-Accused in 1993 of “sexually inappropriate behaviour” with two parishioners while vicar at St. Matthew’s church in West Ham.
-Accused between 2003 and 2008 of being involved in a total of six attacks on young boys attending the Eastside academy.
-Arrested three times in his life: once on suspicion of blackmail, once for two alleged thefts and once for alleged deception during the sale of a house.
-Lied on his resume by falsely claiming to be a magistrate.

His claims to not know anything about these allegations against him have also been shown to be demonstrably false. He had to have known about the ban because in 2000 he made an official application for it to be revoked.

Shockingly, this is the man Tory leader David Cameron had lauded as the face of the new Conservative party. As London’s deputy mayor, he had an enormous amount of power, specifically over young people and Johnson’s initiative to fight knife crime. Obviously the Tories are in an embarrassing spot. So how did they handle it today? They blamed the church! David Cameron's adviser Nick Boles said, “The Church sat on it and suddenly decided to bring it to the public now. Why?” But not only is that a bizarre accusation to make when Lewis was only selected as a deputy mayor two months ago, directly after Johnson was elected, but it’s also completely false. The Bishop of Barking David Hawkins outlined his concerns to Boris Johnson in person on May 11, just days after Lewis was appointed, and he then followed up with a letter. The church only took the story to the media after Johnson refused to do anything about it.

So what does this all mean as the country looks ahead to a general election showdown in a year? Well, it’s an early indication that Johnson’s London mayorship may prove to be more of a handicap to the Tories than a good advertisement. His tenure as mayor so far has been chaotic and clumsy, and his handling of this situation has been downright incompetent. Not only did city hall fail to fully investigate Lewis’s background before he was given this very prominent position, they also failed to act when the concerns were initially brought to them. Then, when the story broke in the media, they bumbled through a train wreck succession of press conferences and interviews in which Lewis only made the situation worse. This is exactly the kind of inexperience and incompetence that had many people concerned about Johnson in the first place. The new London mayor has come out of this ordeal looking like he’s unwittingly surrounded himself with criminals, and it would appear he has no idea how to handle an unfolding crisis.

In a larger sense this is partly to blame on a problem that has nothing to do with the Conservatives, as the new position of London mayor still gets the kinks worked out. The position of mayor is essentially an American system that was shoehorned into British politics in 2000, but in some aspects they seem to have not grasped it properly. An American-style complete change in administration takes time to work out. That’s why the US has its elections in early November, and the winner doesn’t take office until January. That gives them several months to put together an administration and ensure an orderly transition. Here, Johnson took office just days after the election, and had to hurriedly select administration professionals and advisors without proper background checks. Now of course, during the campaign the media was calling on Johnson to announce his advisor selections and he refused. Surely if he had done that earlier, or if there had been a transition period between the election and taking office, the unsavoury details of Lewis’s past would have been uncovered. So beyond the political ramifications of this scandal, its shown the need to reform the mayorship to add in space for a new mayor to prepare to take office.

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

That's really interesting, about how the American mayor system was imported properly. I hadn't thought of that but you're right, it's ridiculous to have the mayor start right after he was elected. But in any case, Boris should have announced his advisors earlier! Londoners are idiots for electing a man who wouldn't even tell them who he was going to pick for advisors!