OPINION - Ray Lewis did so much for London — while the Left hated him for working with Boris Johnson

Gangbuster: Ray Lewis at his Eastside Young Leaders Academy. He hopes to repeat its success across London
Gangbuster: Ray Lewis at his Eastside Young Leaders Academy. He hopes to repeat its success across London

By his own admission, in characteristically colourful terms, Ray Lewis was “not Jesus Christ”. Neither — as he put it back in 2008 — was he a bad man, and those of us who had the privilege of working closely with him are devastated that he has left us too suddenly.

He had a huge heart, an inimitable gift of expression and and unbreakable zeal for helping young black men on the toughest fringes of society.

Born in Guyana, raised by a single mum in Brixton, shaped by a rare combination of the Anglican priesthood and our prison service Ray was an unlikely appointment as Deputy Mayor of London. That’s why he was an inspired choice for a new Mayor determined to cut the tragic level of youth violence plaguing the city at the time.

Not of us then involved at City Hall will forget an angry public meeting — just weeks into the new term — with hundreds of disaffected youths.

“Odds on a riot?”, was the text doing the round of young advisers.

Only Ray could have addressed one of the most aggressive ringleaders as a “brother”, castigated him for his rude language and insisted that he show respect for the office of Mayor if not the man.

The storm subsided, decent ideas were surfaced and long before Boris was up for re-election, violent crime had been cut by a third in the capital.

Ray could connect because he spent most of his adult life nurturing some of the most dispossessed and disillusioned teenagers in the city. He was rough, yes. His language could be coarse, and — though compact — he had a physical presence one had to take seriously.

But his real currency was hope. Young men, led to believe that the world had nothing to offer them, or told that the colour of their skin would hold them back, suddenly believed that their opinion mattered, that it was never too late to turn a corner and — if they were prepared to work for it — that they could reach for the stars.

The Eastside Academy which Ray founded and ran, took the most disruptive pupils, and channeled their fears and aggression into sporting or academic achievement. He loved all of them but was particularly proud that many ended up with scholarships to some of the best independent schools, including Eton, Rugby and Wellington.

Boris Johnson brought him into City Hall in an attempt to bottle that secret sauce and replicate it more widely across the capital. Sadly the appointment brought Ray into a fierce political arena and the new Mayor’s opponents set out to destroy him.

They will hate me for saying this, but the truth is that the Left loathed seeing a man of colour endorse a Conservative agenda that promoted opportunity not alienation.

In the end it was a ludicrous technicality that drove him out

Channel 4 News and The Guardian were particularly destructive. Because Ray had chosen to work with some strange parishioners, prisoners and potential gang members, there were things in his background that were always going to look unsavoury devoid of context and perspective.

In the end it was a technicality that drove him out. Boris refused to let him resign until he turned up at the Mayor’s office and insisted in the most memorable way that he’d had enough:

“Boris, this patient is dead. You cannot put this patient on life support. You my friend, have to show some testicular fortitude and allow this patient to die”.

Boris was ashen as Ray headed out to tell the press, but he brought him back in the second term at the Mayoralty, and tried hard to find him a role in No10 when he was Prime Minister. Again the establishment was determined to stop him, but he insisted on putting Ray on the honours list when he left office, and I was thrilled to see him at Windsor Castle picking up his CBE.

“Do you actually know this guy,” he was asked after embracing me heartily.

“No”, said Ray, sensing a slight. “I just nicked his wallet in the car park, but thought I should give it back!”

There was no trace of bitterness but Ray was acutely aware of some people’s shocking assumptions about a stocky black man they didn’t recognise.

Ray deserves to be recognised because he faced the challenges most of us try to duck, and never gave up in a tough world that his detractors barely know exists. The most powerful tributes will not be in the newspapers but in the hearts of those he helped, generations of young men and women who face much brighter futures because of the sense of purpose and possibility Ray gave them.

Guto Harri is a former Downing Street director of communications under Boris Johnson