Boris Johnson and Michael Bloomberg's mayoral meeting

'Mike and Boris' show less a meeting of two titans, more of lion and mouse

It was billed as the "Mike and Boris show", a coming together of two titans standing at the head of the world's greatest cities. But in truth, it was more the meeting of a lion and a mouse. On one side, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire businessman, owner of a multinational media empire and all-powerful mayor of New York. On the other, Boris Johnson being, well, Boris Johnson.

The two politicians were brought face to face in the neo-classical splendour of Columbia University's central library for a Manhattan Institute conference entitled Thinking Big: New York and London Heading Back to the Top. For almost an hour Bloomberg, New York's 108th and arguably most heavyweight mayor, joshed with Johnson, London's second and undoubtedly most foppish.

The contrast in styles between the two men was evident from the off. Johnson spoke at twice the volume of his sparring partner, a ruse to disguise the fact that he enjoys half Bloomberg's mayoral powers.

Mike was demure and respectful, his grey hair neatly shorn; he sat impassive through even Boris's most wince-inducing comments. Boris was bouncy and exuberant; while Bloomberg spoke he scratched his chin and his scalp, and stared up at the domed ceiling.

The two politicians neatly personified the stereotypes of each other's cities: Bloomberg stiff-upper-lipped in the mould of the British gentleman, Johnson the epitome of the wired-up energy junkie in the city that never sleeps.

Paradoxically, it rested to the only true New Yorker among the duo to make the case for London.

Johnson, who was born in New York (Bloomberg is a Bostonian), said the Columbia library was the first academic institution he had ever visited, as a babe in arms. "It may have been that experience that gave me a lifelong habit of sleeping through lectures and tutorials," he said.

Bloomberg spoke first, adopting the demeanour of the elder and dominant brother. He smothered Johnson with the kind of lavish praise he would never bestow on a genuine competitor.

"Boris Johnson really does think outside the box. He is very well-loved in London. People think he's doing a good job and from what my friends tell me he really is."

Commenting on Johnson's origins, he said: "If you listen very carefully you can still hear at times traces of a New York accent."

Then Johnson took to the lectern. As he spoke, there were audible traces of Eton, Henley-on-Thames and Colonel Blimp. The New York accent was strangely absent. Johnson cunningly took pot shots at London's arch-rival through an old literary device. "As a native New Yorker I will resist the arid chauvinistic claptrap about the supremacy of London," he began.

"It would be indelicate," he went on, to suggest that London has more top 100 universities than any city on Earth, more top law firms, more top PR firms, more international tourists than any other city in the world and an economy twice the size of Denmark. I am certainly not going to stand before you now and crow about the triumph of Billy Elliot in the Tony awards. And far be it for me to rub in our success at winning the Olympic games."

Was that a smile, or a twitch of irritation on Bloomberg's statuesque face?

But for the most part, the two mayors had far more to share than to squabble over. Bloomberg spelled out the special relationship between the two metropolises – more than 30 London-New York flights a day (including the one Johnson flew on free of charge, courtesy of British Airways), 1.3 million British visitors to New York every year, thousands of expats on both sides of the Atlantic, a shared experience of terrorist attacks, and the devastating economic crash that hit both financial centres last year.

"No matter what some people think, we are in this together and the solution to our problems will be found working together," Bloomberg said.

Only once was there open disagreement. Bloomberg dismissed a suggestion cities should grow more of their own food – population density in New York was too high to spare the space. That made Johnson see red, or rather green. "No, no, noooo," he blurted out. "You've got plenty of roofs in New York … you've got bags of space."

The interjection had instant effect. Bloomberg pledged to start growing crops on the roof of his multimillion-dollar philanthropic foundation. "I will talk to them about putting in corn and rhubarb."

Victory! The mouse can now return to London boasting of having secured a major concession from his counterpart across the pond.


Ed Pilkington in New York

The GuardianTramp

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