Boris Johnson is a serious threat to Ken Livingstone. The clown and master of the jolly jape is more deadly than he looks. Modern Britain is such an odd place: hedonistic, dis respectful of authority and obsessed with celebrity, that a candidate as unconventional as BoJo – as some of his supporters now appear to call him – might win next May’s election to run Europe’s biggest city. Johnson appears almost certain to be selected by the Tories in their ongoing primary election.
The persona created by the Tories’ likely candidate is so muddled, his opponents should be able to have a political field day. If, that is, the London electorate wants an election where details about Boris’s positions on Iraq, Kyoto and Section 28 or his willingness to turn up and vote on Crossrail are revisited in line-by-line detail. But if people are prepared to vote for Johnson because of his past funny image and celebrity, the London electorate will also need to consider very carefully if it is willing to risk playing such a huge joke on itself.
This is not to say Livingstone is doomed. “Ken” is one of the shrewdest tactical politicians in Britain. He ran the Greater London Council for five years after leading a County Hall coup in 1981, and then loomed in the wilderness of Westminster for more than a decade before re-emerging as Mayor of London in 2000. He has survival and zigzag qualities worthy of Jacques Chirac. Every time he has been attacked and made into a martyr, he has bounced back stronger. His enemies have included Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – and where are they today?
That Brian Paddick is on the Liberal Democrats’ mayoral shortlist offers the chance of an even more curious contest next May. His anarcho-liberal take on the world could prove popular in the capital. Indeed, a contest between Livingstone, Johnson and Paddick would give the more nihilistic voter a wide range of choice.
Mayoral politics was designed by Blair to enliven and improve town and city halls. By adding the magic ingredient of personality into dear old local government the new system, it was hoped, would make the public become more politically engaged. They would also know whom to blame if things went wrong. The contest to control the Mayor of London’s £10bn annual budget should be serious politics.
Any London mayoral contest involves Britain’s most complex electorate picking themselves a figurehead. Many voters are not really sure what the Mayor of London does. Moreover, no one really believes politicians or public institutions can any longer “solve” problems as varied as gang crime or the failing London Underground. This means there is always a possibility that the capital’s voters will favour political independence, eccentricity and “having a bit of a laugh” over seriousness.
Voters in mayoral elections have rewarded political independence and “fun” before – and not only in London. Remember H’Angus the Monkey (aka Stuart Drummond)? He was elected mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 under the election slogan “Free bananas for schoolchildren”. This story has parallels with what had happened in London in 2000. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had worked hard to ensure Livingstone did not represent Labour. Frank Dobson emerged as candidate from the party’s dodgy electoral college. Livingstone then stood as an independent and humiliated Labour, pushing Dobson into a poor third place.
In both the north-east of England and the capital, the electorate showed it was willing to poke the political establishment in the eye. Having said that, both Livingstone and Drummond have become impressive mayors. Livingstone has presided over a growing city which, by some counts, has recently overtaken New York as an international financial centre. Drummond tackled crime, antisocial behaviour and issues such as the cleanliness of streets and the effective maintenance of housing estates. The electorate has worked out that it can stick one on the major political parties and, in doing so, choose a mayor who is a bit different. It also knows that “different” can mean “good”.
Boris Johnson may be differently different, but he is certainly no ordinary Tory. He exudes a kind of bonkers eccentricity which, it is just possible, the electorate will find irresistible. He can be extremely funny – he described Livingstone’s relationship with Hugo Chávez as “completely Caracas” at a press conference this past week – though some of his previous remarks will be used aggressively by Livingstone’s campaign. There is no way to dress up expressions such as “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” to take them within a million miles of acceptable. On the other hand, Johnson’s team will assemble examples of Livingstone’s own lapses into questionable language. Telling a Jewish reporter he was “just like a concentration camp guard” was unwise. The Tories will also creatively replay the views of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, invited to City Hall by the mayor, on gay people and women.
The polling evidence on Johnson v Livingstone is thin. A YouGov survey at the end of July – during the Brown bounce – suggested that Boris was ahead among the capital’s voters. But we need a full poll to make a sober judgement. The strident tone of a number of recent attacks on Johnson suggests several columnists think he is a real threat to Livingstone. The line consistently taken by Livingstone himself, the think tank Compass and left-leaning writers is that Johnson is a hard right-winger with postmodern cladding: a “charming and engaging rogue”, according to Ken, but one who “makes Norman Tebbit look like a cuddly liberal”.
The left’s sudden realisation that Boris is a wicked right-winger says as much about the left – and, indeed, about “ironic” modern Britain – as it does about Johnson. For years, editors have paid by the line for the populist hilarity he could bring to their “serious” output. He was afforded court jester status, able to say things that tilted against the suffocating orthodoxy of the received view on many subjects. Ann Widdecombe is used in much the same way. Deep down, those left-leaning editors cannot truly have thought Johnson was beyond the pale. They understood that the British need to be amused at any cost. To be too serious is death. Moreover, attacks on “political correctness” are a key theme of contemporary culture, from Jeremy Clarkson to The Simpsons. With BoJo looking likely to run Ken close, efforts are afoot to change his persona from laddish fop to vile right-wing philanderer.
The blogs are alive with the sound of Boris. He is such an oddity that – and this must be a first – he appears to appeal simultaneously to both wings of the Conservative Party. “Old” Conservatives in the outer boroughs see him as embodying traditional Tory values, including a running battle against the absurdities of modern life. Yet the Notting Hill metropolitans see him as a modern, Cameron-style liberal. He even rides a bike and lives in Islington, for heaven’s sake.
So we could soon move – assuming the Tories select Johnson – into a bitter and polarised campaign. In much the way that Boris will harden up the Tory vote, he will do the same for Labour. Livingstone’s “hard-right” message will play well across the party and with Lib Dems. But probably only half the London electorate is tribal enough to line up behind Ken and Boris. Between 20 and 30 per cent will go for the Lib Dems, Respect or others; there’s also a huge number of floating voters.
Livingstone and Johnson are both known for being irreverent and independent of party. Indeed, Ken has created the space within which Boris can prosper. But Livingstone is, without doubt, the “serious” candidate in a race against Johnson. He is handling the fallout from the failed Tube company Metronet, including this month’s paralysing strike. He has supported the police, even where they have made mistakes. He is the developer’s friend. He was a crucial element of the bid that won the 2012 Olympics. Any classic “Red Ken” antics, such as his oil-for-fares deal with Chávez, are used to send friendly signals to his remaining rainbow coalition supporters. Johnson, by contrast, is fresh and different and, above all, would allow the hedonistic London electorate to poke the establishment in the eye even harder than when they voted for Livingstone in 2000. Commentators on the left see him as such a threat because they know he is Hogarth’s candidate for Hogarth’s city. His louche, chaotic style could well attract many floating voters.
Contrast the forthcoming race with the utter seriousness of recent contests in New York and Paris. Michael Bloomberg took over from Rudy Giuliani promising good government, competence and compassion. He enjoys 70 per cent approval ratings. Bertrand Delanoë became Socialist mayor of Gaullist Paris by signalling his trustworthiness in contrast to the corrupt right-wing regime that preceded him. It is by no means clear that such heavyweight qualities would get a candidate very far in carnival-on-the-edge-of-frenzy London. Having said that, Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected as governor of California, as did Ronald Reagan. Americans can push poli tical sense aside to elect film stars, who then have hugely greater powers than the Mayor of London.
Bendy buses in danger
At a launch of the Boris Johnson campaign on 3 September, he was trying hard not to sound hard-right. The most controversial policy put forward was a threat to bendy buses. He pledged to keep the congestion charge, protect the Freedom Pass for pensioners, introduce air-conditioning on the Tube, increase shared-ownership housing schemes and to offer cheap seats for children at the Olympics. Ken will doubtless steal that last idea, while highlighting the extent to which the Boris manifesto recants on issues such as the Conservatives’ long-standing opposition to the congestion charge.
Boris’s potential popularity tells us much about the state of public sentiment and its view of conventional politics. Contemporary London is a place of recreational drug use, relentless boozing and a fabulously tolerant live-and-let live attitude. It is not only the global capital of money, but also of sex and shopping. It is the place where nice students from nice countries try to cheat stressed bus drivers out of £1 fares.
Livingstone supporters currently have the chance to vote in the Tories’ London-wide primary election. Any registered voter in the capital can take part in the process by phoning the ballot hotline on 0906 555 5050. If Boris can be sold as a monstrous right-winger, he will surely come to grief in any London mayoral contest. Ken’s supporters should immediately ring up and vote for Boris. But wait a minute. Is there just the tiniest chance that voters might, on a whim, actually vote for a celebrity eccentric as Mayor of London? Suddenly a vote for Boris looks more of a risk.
Of course, Johnson would also be a terrible risk for the Conservatives. He may become tangled in some catastrophic, unpredictable gaffe. If he attempts to put too straight-faced a spin on himself, he may destroy his unique – if bizarre – selling point. Early popularity may turn to distaste as Ken’s guns blast into him during an eight-month campaign. In May, Londoners will have to decide if they are willing to ignore the sound of gunfire and play the ultimate joker.
Tony Travers is director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics
Life of Boris
Great-grandson of Ali Kemal, last interior minister of the Ottoman empire
Member (along with David Cameron) of elite, restaurant-vandalising Bullingdon Club while at Oxford
Married to Marina Wheeler, barrister. They have four children
Began journalism career at the Times but was “let go” for falsifying a quotation
Was recorded agreeing to source the address of a journalist so that his friend Darius Guppy (later convicted of fraud) could have him beaten up
Sacked from the Conservative front bench in 2004 for lying about a four-year affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt
Had to apologise to the people of Liverpool for accusing them of wallowing in “a sense of vicarious victimhood”
Policy pronouncements include: “If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog”
Research by Matt Sandy