Does Labour now fear Boris more than Cameron?

The Mayor of London is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour.

"I think the biggest threat to our chances now is …" I eagerly awaited the conclusion to this sentence uttered in a conversation earlier this week with a senior figure in the Labour Party. This is someone who, not surprisingly given the coalition’s travails, is very upbeat about Ed Miliband’s chances of becoming Prime Minister. (He referred to "when" rather than "if" it happens, which is a new development in the tone around the shadow cabinet.)

So what would that threat be? Ongoing doubts about the party’s fiscal credibility? Lack of a clear narrative on what to do with public services? A divisive row with the Unions over how reconciled the party should be with the cuts it will inherit?

"… Boris," he said. This surprised me. I’m a bit of a Boris-sceptic, thinking much of the cheerleading on his behlaf is an expression of Tory frustration with Cameron, rather than a serious movement to get the London Mayor promoted to the job of Prime Minister any time soon. But the case was persuasively made. Everything that is now being said about his unsuitability for the top job and the unlikelihood of it actually happening was once said about his chances of being London mayor. He is, I was told, a real star who has managed his career well and, crucially, who animates people who don't usually care about politics. That is the Holy Grail in Westminster these days. The fact that he isn’t in parliament now and has another job? A minor hurdle, apparently. Once Tory MPs are convinced enough that Cameron is leading them to defeat their famously regicidal tempers will be fired and a way will be found.

I’m still not entirely persuaded but it is certainly revealing that Labour people are taking the prospect very seriously indeed. (My colleague George points out that Jacqui Smith, former Labour Home Secretary, has intervened in a fairly vigorous attempt to debunk the myth of Boris bonhomie.) It wasn’t that long ago that Labour people were actually rather enjoying Johnson’s not so secret campaign to undermine Cameron and Osborne. They may have hated the way he kept Labour out of City Hall but the prevailing feeling was that his function on the national stage was as a convenient thorn in the PM’s side - an enemy’s enemy and therefore kind of a friend. No longer.

I was reminded also of a conversation I had a while ago with one of Ed Miliband’s advisers about the issue of charisma and personal ratings, where Cameron still beats the Labour leader in opinion polls. Wouldn’t a presidential-style contest between the two men be a problem for Ed? The answer: that is the received wisdom, yes. But consider how much of a hit Cameron’s personal brand has already taken, how limited his power is in coalition, how much some his own MPs dislike him, how jaded his act will seem by 2015. Is it so hard to think that, by the next election, a presidential face-off would be something Miliband might even relish? I was deeply sceptical of that proposition at the time and most people I have shared it with (including pollsters) have looked puzzled or snorted in disbelief.

But to hear Tories talk about their own leader is a masterclass in disillusionment and pessimism. Sometimes they seem to do a better job of talking up Miliband’s chances than their Labour counterparts. Partly that is because Labour MPs are desperate not to sound complacent and because they have more of an insight into how brittle and unready the party machine is when it comes to the prospect of fighting an election. The Tories know their own weaknesses on that front too, of course.

The Labour high command certainly isn’t writing Cameron off. Far from it. The feeling I get from talking to Miliband’s closest aides is that they know Cameron still outpolls his party and remains a formidable politician  - "clearly he is still their strongest asset" – says one. The Tories, goes this view, would be crazy to change leader before the election. That remains a very remote possibility in any case. But something has definitely changed in the way Labour views their main opponent.  There is now someone in the wings they would want to take on even less.

The Mayor of London is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496