Cripes, Boris for mayor?

28 Mar 08
PHILIP JOHNSTONE | Whisper it if you dare, but just over a month from now Boris Johnson could be mayor of London with the biggest personal mandate of any western European politician other than the president of France.

Whisper it if you dare, but just over a month from now Boris Johnson could be mayor of London with the biggest personal mandate of any western European politician other than the president of France.

What began looking like a bit of a joke has turned into a deadly serious challenge for power in the capital; and the man who recognises this more than any is the two-term incumbent Ken Livingstone. He reacted to the opinion poll putting Johnson 12 points in the lead by conceding that he was facing the biggest fight of what is already a pretty pugnacious political career.

It is a fight that he is in serious danger of losing, and the ramifications of such a defeat will be far reaching. It might have been tempting for the Labour hierarchy to dismiss such an outcome as an aberration, as a clash of personalities and mavericks rather than of parties. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has spent most of his career thoroughly detesting Livingstone, has tied his colours to the mast of Good Ship Ken just as it is taking on water, thereby ensuring that a defeat for the mayor is a defeat also for Labour.

Brown recently praised his erstwhile foe’s ‘lifelong commitment to London’ which had enabled him ‘to get so much done for Londoners’. For Brown to deliver such an encomium to a man whose name he once found difficult to utter without biting his tongue is a clear sign that Labour is seriously worried about the outcome of the election in London, and in the municipal authorities outside the capital as well. Opinion polls seem to point to a sea-change in politics, though it is still not clear how much they owe to Chancellor Alistair Darling’s lacklustre Budget and to what extent they betoken a long-term decline in Labour fortunes.

But polls showing the Tories as much as 16 points ahead of Labour, consistently achieving 40% or more of the vote and with Labour languishing in the 20s are the stuff of nightmares for the government. These figures are what you would expect to see during the third term of an administration that has lost its way and has no clear idea of where it is going next.

Opinion polls can always be dismissed in a way that a real election cannot be. The importance of May 1 in London for the Conservatives is to be able to show that they can win big again. They have gradually clawed their way back from a nadir in 1995 to be once again the biggest party in local government in England. They now control more London boroughs than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined. To land the prize of mayor of London would be a significant achievement.

But their biggest problem is Boris himself. Would a Johnson victory be seen as a Tory win, or a triumph of celebrity over politics? There is a school of thought in the Labour party that a Johnson mayoralty might not be such a bad thing for the government. This argument holds that he will make a mess of running London, will be gaffe-prone and Woosterish in his demeanour and, therefore, will reflect badly on his fellow Old Etonian, David Cameron —and, by extension, the Conservative party, especially in the northern cities where the Tories need to stage a comeback.

If truth be told, similar concerns are shared by some Tories, who were never happy that Johnson was chosen as the party’s official candidate, even though it was obvious he was the only one with a high enough profile to take on Livingstone with any chance of success.

Were he to win and make a reasonable fist of his first year or two, then he could do the Tories a power of good nationally in the run-up to what will now almost certainly be a 2010 election.

He will look new and dynamic against a dour and sombre prime minister grappling with economic difficulties partly of his own making and still struggling to define the ‘vision’ he promised his supporters when he postponed the on-off election last autumn.

Johnson is well known among young voters, who might see the political process as one worth taking an interest in if it can throw up such colourful characters.

The gaffe factor will always be lurking in the background; but London is a forgiving city. He would have to make a spectacular botch of things for the Conservatives to lose, rather than gain, from a Johnson victory.

Things look more problematic for Labour, however. A Livingstone third term would be portrayed less as a Labour win than a personal triumph for Ken after the difficulties he has faced in recent months.

On the other hand, a Livingstone defeat would confirm that Labour’s fortunes are in decline, possibly terminally. The party has lost power in Scotland and is unrepresented across swathes of southern England.

The coalition that Tony Blair built and which sustained Labour in government for almost a decade is crumbling and Johnson might be about to remove the final brick in the wall. The Tories are praying that he doesn’t drop it.

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