‘I am the world’s best known plumber,” writes Charlie Mullins in his autobiography, Bog-Standard Business, published in 2015. If notoriety and the ability to replace a worn ballcock become, by 2020, key qualificiations for the next mayor of London, he is, without question, unrivalled.
Mr Mullins, Londoners will note, comes with the bonus of a signature look, involving a spiky bleached ’do and electric blue suits, which is quite as striking as anything Donald Trump or, indeed, Boris Johnson has come up with. It clearly impresses the BBC, where Mullins has become a respected authority on many non-faucet-related matters. We recently heard, for instance, the great plumber’s view of Jeremy Corbyn: “a twat”. That analysis so enchanted programme-makers that they invited him on Today, to scrutinise the Tory leadership: “She needs to go.”
If, notwithstanding such endorsements, it’s still roughly as easy to picture a Mayor Mullins uniting a grieving or divided capital city as it is to imagine Peter Stringfellow helming this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations, then maybe that’s the price you pay for putting a great capital city on the plumbing map.
For Mullins, the owner of Pimlico Plumbers and an intriguingly preserved 65, the sacrifices of leadership would also be significant. Weeks before announcing his candidacy, he said he hoped soon to spend most of his time on the Costa del Sol, where he has houses in Marbella. He even, he said, planned to learn Spanish, “when I relocate”. Though Dubai, he writes in Bog-Standard Business, is actually his favourite place. “Funnily enough, they know me in Dubai. People stop me in the malls and say, ‘You’re Charlie, right? The plumber?’”
Not that the mayoralty and a demanding international shopping habit are necessarily incompatible, for the right person. Boris Johnson managed to juggle countless media appearances, three?? books, a weekly newspaper column and at least one extramarital conception, with occasionally instructing assembly members to “get stuffed” – and still found a moment to plan a garden bridge with one of Mullins’s celebrity clients, Joanna Lumley, with support from a Mullins ally, George Osborne. The civil, reasonable-sounding Sadiq Khan is, in fact, the first London mayor to show that the job need not, with its limited powers, remain principally a platform for boorish, prong-dazzled exhibitionists.
But Mullins thinks Khan weak. “I think we need more of a larger-than-life character,” he has been instructing interviewers, of his plans to take over. “We need someone that’s got some balls.”
Beyond that powerful message to the emasculated and never-endowed, we remain short on details of a Mullins-style mayoralty, other than it would abound, like Trump’s presidency, in “common sense”. In time, Mullins would presumably reconcile his official responsibility to protect Londoners from lung disease (via measures such as Khan’s T-charge) with his undying commitment to the free movement of Pimlico Plumbers vans. In 2012, he threatened to sue the organisers of the Olympics for the “true horror” of its road closures. “Unless,” he complained, “you’re Usain Bolt or a politician from Aruba, we’re all going to be stuck at the side of the road.”
In his more inclusive capacity, as a learner-dignitary, Mr Mullins now states, of London’s lethally toxic air: “Pollution has been around for years. Obviously we don’t want to be killing people, but his [Khan’s] priority is pollution. He should concentrate on helping businesses, rather than disincentivising them.”
As with his line on employee or paternity rights, it emerges, then, that Mullins’s anti-Brexit position should not be taken, by fellow Remainers, to imply any sympathy for the sort of EU regulations he has previously denounced as “pointless, costly and infuriating red tape”. Cameron’s referendum had his support. Mullins, schooled by the late Max Clifford, had long ago made such interventions central to his business. “I needed to be in the limelight too.”
Now, he writes, “get recognised”, whether it’s personalised number plates, celebrity snaps, punditry on Russia Today. “Every one or two weeks,” he writes, “I get asked to appear on the BBC’s Today programme, the Daily Politics show or Sky News appearances. If you ask me, a successful business can’t do enough PR in this day and age.”
There could hardly, for instance, be a better PR stunt, exactly when Mr Mullins is both fighting employee rights and selling a 20% stake in his business, than the reinvention, via the mayoral bid, of its proprietor’s claims to civic stature, with the suggestion he enjoys the required public affection.
The only possible downside to the vast PR archive that preceded this masterstroke is that, in the unlikely event the mayoral wheeze amounted to anything, people might start reading it. And if the discovery that women plumbers were a “disaster” at Pimlico did not bother everyone, assorted Mullins proposals to, for instance, scrap all benefits, simplify sacking and – my favourite – “put pupils to work repairing schools” might ultimately dismay some of the very Londoners on whose behalf he is presumably believed, by some trusted broadcasters, to speak.
Even given the BBC’s relentless platforming of affluent, irresponsible, strangely coiffed male Conservatives who also think Jeremy Corbyn is a twat, it is hard to fathom the pretence, in Mullins’s case, that he is anything more than a crudely partisan representative of a prosperous local plumbing business. Nor are other suppliers, in this case, available. From outside London, his eminence must look yet more baffling. Is it his “ain’t”-strewn pearly-king routine that somehow convinces programme-makers that, regardless of Mullins’s wealth and historic threats to leave the country (over the 50% tax) if thwarted, his suspicion of employee rights, his Savile Row habit and his Marbs relocation plans, he’s genuinely there for the little guy? With an hourly rate of £95 (£150 after six), he’s not even there, you could argue, for their ballcocks.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist