Yet this conventional wisdom is completely wrong. Mr Johnson and Mr Livingstone, far from being blundering political innocents, are both politicians of the first rank. Mr Livingstone not only managed to outmanoeuvre and humiliate both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown by becoming the first Mayor of London, but proved himself to be the only British politician of his generation to confront Margaret Thatcher and win in the long run. Mr Johnson cannot, yet, claim any such electoral triumphs, but he has managed to survive verbal gaffes and personal scandals as serious as the ones that ended the career of David Blunkett and a host of Tory Cabinet ministers from the Thatcher years.
The truth is nobody really thought that Boris could win; the Conservatives just didn’t want a repeat of the humiliation they went through with the last Tory candidate, Steven Norris (and don’t even mention Jeffrey Archer). If Boris could acquit himself in a gentlemanly fashion, knock up a reasonable score, draw some blood, that would be enough: there would be tea and biscuits and a junior cabinet post back at Westminster.
The only person who thought Boris had a chance was Livingstone. And now, as the polls show, there’s not much more than a margin of error between them, and everything looks different.
The received wisdom is that Ken will lose the election for himself, and that the best Boris can do in the meantime is to keep his feet out of his mouth. In short, the less he can behave like the Boris everyone loves, the better -- which seems to be an odd strategy. And Boris doesn’t look or sound happy with it.
The gains to London from an elected mayoralty are hard to disentangle from the performance of the eight years of Livingstone’s incumbency, but they are undeniable. The democratic potency awarded the office secured an astronomical £1 billion subsidy for London’s buses and probably three times that amount for the giant Olympics and Crossrail projects.
In no other British city would a leader have dared to proceed (for better or worse) with the congestion charge. Nor have Labour home secretaries felt strong enough to cap Livingstone’s extra spending on the police, as they have police authorities in other areas. Having won the argument but initially lost the battle against Brown’s privatised Tube, Livingstone has now "localised" it de facto by taking over the failed Metronet consortium.
Like him or loathe him, Livingstone has established the concept of city government as an entity in the American sense, in contrast to the urban cabalism of which he was previously a notorious exponent. London is no longer "town" but city.
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