Mayor: they did better in Toytown

The race to become London's first mayor is turning into a farce. Like the best comedy, bathos is at its heart. Ministers claim, with some justification, that the capital's mayor will have more powers than those enjoyed by his equivalent in New York, Paris and Barcelona. Now consider the line-up for this powerful, prestigious post.

The Tory nominations were announced on 6 September. The runaway favourite is Lord Archer, who deserves our undying admiration for his sheer chutzpah, if nothing else. A more self-conscious politician would not have sought such a high-profile position after the publication of Michael Crick's biography a few years ago. Taking the next available plane out of the country might have been a more natural response, given the bizarre revelations. The most flattering interpretation is that Archer is something of a fantasist. Even his friend and admirer, Gyles Brandreth, described the great author in such terms in the Sunday Telegraph.

Crick is ready with a revised edition if Archer wins the Tory nomination. It will no doubt hit the bookshops shortly after William Hague warmly embraces the victorious candidate on the platform of next month's Tory party conference.

The only other serious contender for the Tory nomination is Steven Norris. I am an admirer of Norris. In a curious way he is the closest Tory equivalent to Tony Blair in his ability to transcend party ties and command a wider appeal. Under certain circumstances Norris could be a formid-able political weapon for the Tories.

But even I, who do not believe that the private lives of politicians should influence our judgement of them as public figures, need to sit down and take a drink when I contemplate his domestic arrangements. If Lord Archer's life mirrors the plots of his own more outlandish novels, Norris's is closer to a P G Wodehouse with sex.

The announcement of his nomination was greeted by a letter in the Times from his 86-year-old father-in-law, Rear-Admiral Peter Gibson. Writing from the Army and Navy Club in London's Pall Mall, Gibson expresses astonishment that Norris is to divorce his wife (who happens to be the rear-admiral's daughter) in order to marry the fourth of his five mistresses. Norris is the father of his fourth mistress's baby. Gibson writes, in Wodehousian prose, that "given Steven's inactivity on the divorce front for the past six years and the lack of pace at which current negotiations are proceeding, I had naturally imagined that he was dragging his heels for a long as possible to delay making a new commitment".

I cannot help thinking that however hard we try to focus on what Tony Benn calls the "issues", much of a Norris mayoralty would be taken up by the soap opera of whom he was divorcing or marrying and what various father-in-laws thought about it.

At least we know who the Tory candidates will be. In what will be much the most significant poll this side of the general election, involving a population bigger than Scotland's, we are still far from sure who will be standing for Labour.

It is still quite possible that a reluctant cabinet minister will emerge from the mists of autumn and throw his or her cap in the ring. It is highly likely that Ken Livingstone will not be allowed to stand. In the meantime, a journalist and a few junior ministers who have not exactly set the political stage alight are making a half-hearted go of it.

Like the best farces there is a darker side to the mayoral race, offering wider insights into the current political situation. For a start, it exposes the weakness of Hague's position within his party. If he was miles ahead in the polls he could do more or less what he wanted; instead he makes decisions while watching his own back. He will attempt to compare favourably his non-intervention in the mayoral contest with the bungling control-freakery of new Labour. But if Hague had been in a stronger position, capable of facing down the disapproval of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major - both Archer fans - he would have prevented the fantasist from standing or found a candidate capable of beating him.

Anyone who has read the Crick book, and I bet Hague has glanced at it with some alarm in recent weeks, would conclude that an Archer candidacy could cause the Tory party considerable harm.

The mishandling by the normally sure- footed Labour leadership is more revealing. If the mess over the candidacy had arisen in Scotland, action would have been taken months ago. Either Livingstone would have been blocked before his embryonic campaign had gathered momentum or a candidate capable of beating him would be in place. Gordon Brown and his entourage would have vacated the Treasury and headed north to sort out the crisis. He and other Scottish members of the cabinet would have warned Blair about the urgency of the situation. But new Labour's normally sharp political antennae tend to ignore the politics of London, in spite of the millions of voters and the many marginal seats within and around the capital. To take another related example, if Scotland had suffered from an appalling underground service, effective remedies would have been in place within days of the general election. London is still waiting.

There is a final depressing lesson. The lack of decent political talent reflects the relentless centralisation of Britain under the Conservatives. London has had no elected body to represent it since the mid-1980s: can we be surprised that some of the leading potential candidates look like good mayors of Toytown in a bad year? The government deserves credit for bringing accountability and democracy back to the capital, but it risks losing it by failing to take the election seriously enough.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics