Every politician is this morning conducting his or her own private autopsy on the deceased bonus of RBS’s Chief Executive Stephen Hester. What killed it? What does it mean? Few will be asking this question with more urgency than London Mayor Boris Johnson.
He has historically been seen as a friend of the City — championing the capital’s vast financial services sector is a task that comes with the job. But he also wants to be re-elected this year by an electorate that tends to lean towards Labour. Not surprisingly, Boris was out over the weekend expressing his dismay at the scale of Hester’s pay award.
The incumbent mayor has had a poll fright recently with his Labour challenger, Ken Livingstone, pulling neck-and-neck at the turn of the year and even inching ahead. That was an upset to the conventional wisdom (accepted even by senior Labour figures last year) that the contest could already be called for the Tories.
There are a number of explanations around for why it is that Boris seems to have lost his lead. One is that people simply hadn’t focused on the contest before, making 2011 vintage polls inaccurate. Another is that Ken’s New Year campaign around fare rises really struck a chord with commuters. A third is that Boris hasn’t really started campaigning yet. There is truth in all of them.
A key factor, I suspect, is that incumbency is harming Johnson more than it helps him.
Last time around, Boris was the challenger, which suited his self-image as a bit of a maverick, an eccentric, a TV personality and so, crucially, not a typical Tory. Some of that image remains, but the mantle of office has necessarily imposed a degree of discipline on the mayor. He still gets away with more mannered dishevelment than is usual for someone in his position, but there is an extent to which his pre-election persona has been absorbed into a more conventional political identity. Or, to put it in cruder terms, he is becoming more Tory than Boris.
In that context, his association with the City, Big Finance and the incumbent government could do him immense harm if — as the RBS bonus episode suggests — there is an appetite for some populist left noises in the campaign. Ken Livingstone, I imagine, is capable of doing left populism if required.
Crucially, there is also interesting poll evidence to suggest that the coalition of voters who stubbornly hate the Tories is powerful enough to trump those that are wary of Labour and, at a national level, unconvinced by Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister.
That anti-Tory bloc of voters will be big in London and, of course, they won’t be electing a PM. Under the London mayoral voting system, they also have a second preference to put on the ballot paper. So what it could come down to is the question of who Londoners hate less — Ken or Boris. And if that becomes a Labour/Tory choice as opposed to a personal popularity contest, Livingstone really could snatch it.