I’m no Conservative as you know and at the last London Mayoral election, I found the contest between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone a fairly unenlightening spectacle but it was the contest the media wanted and lapped up to the exclusion of more able candidates such as the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick.
Boris duly won and has announced his desire to run again. Any objective assessment of Boris’s tenure at City Hall would argue that while he has taken significantly more powers for himself than Ken Livingstone ever did (Boris now runs Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police as well as the GLA), he has actually done very little apart from a handful of gimmicks and has continued the major projects started by Ken Livingstone.
Now, life and politics aren't fair as we know – the Millennium Dome is widely regarded as a New Labour folly but it was commissioned and begun by John Major’s Conservative Government and Michael Heseltine was one of its biggest supporters.
Yet Boris remains popular and has a high approval rate among Londoners – why ? I’ve come to the view that Boris Johnson was the right man for the time when he became Mayor – he fitted the zeitgeist beautifully. At a time when the capital was heading in to recession, jobs were being lost and the general economic outlook was bleak, at a time when dour men like Gordon Brown and Ken Livingstone were in charge, Boris was a breath of fresh air. He offered if not hope then a positive antidote to the problems facing individuals but more than that he embodies the spirit of the modern Londoner – fun-loving, easygoing, not bothered by rules and regulations. Nothing seems to happen but things keep going and that sums up how many Londoners live in the early 21st century. It’s ordered by virtue of being disordered, a kind of unplanned progress.
Reading the vox pops in Friday’s Evening Standard, it’s clear that many, particularly in Outer London, still identify with Boris. Ken Livingstone, especially when he was an Independent and standing up to the Blair Government, was respected if not liked. Everyone could see he cared about London but his methods became too intrusive, his regulations grated on a population which needs, indeed demands, a light touch and likes to live its life without edict.
A Labour candidate like Ken Livingstone won’t beat Boris – Oona King will struggle though she may make a better fist of it. Were I trying to find a candidate to beat Boris, I’d look for a female, well-known, media-savvy type, not daunted by Boris’s dubious charisma but able to point out the lack of action in key areas. Oddly enough, someone like Kate Garraway, who is married to Labour’s Derek Draper.
Another option would be a totally independent character – a kind of Martin Bell but with edge. This would be a candidate who could attack Boris but would be difficult to attack. Such a candidate, ideally a born-and-bred Londoner, would offer an alternative vision light on specifics but would bring a more London focus. Such a candidate would have to appeal to Outer London as much as Inner London and reassure the suburbs that it would not be Livingstone Mark 2.
In the absence of such a person and in spite of the tough spending cuts to come, Boris Johnson must still be strong favourite to retain the London Mayoralty next year.