On the campaign trail with London’s would-be mayors

The mayoral election is, to my eyes, two pantomime dames bickering about who gets to eat the scenery. I join it at the church hustings, St James’s Piccadilly. Boris Johnson enters, hands deep in hair, five points ahead in the polls. He sits down and gives the audience that swift, forensic look. Ken is at the other end of the table — he is tanned in a tan suit, a man who might walk into a desert and be lost. Brian Paddick and Jenny Jones separate them; it’s safer that way.

The chair, George Pitcher, is a Richard Curtis-themed vicar, with glowing cheeks and the swollen remains of a once fine profile. He looks like a Spitting Image puppet and he is clearly on a mission to be the most charismatic man here, which is terrible news for Boris. The audience is full of Hogarth types; there is a mass over-representation of spats.

Pitcher introduces Boris: ‘Like most Londoners, he went to Eton and Oxford,’ he says. ‘Do you worship Mammon or God?’ Boris looks entirely defeated, and says he pays his taxes. ‘I’m sure we all pay our taxes,’ says Pitcher nastily. I think Pitcher hates Boris. He hates him so much he attacks the woman who was fired for wearing a cross to work when boris defends her. ‘I think it was necklaces that were banned,’ he says, thinly. It is interesting to watch Boris getting angry, because he is not good at it. He mouths a bit, and goes still — a dangerous Weeble wibbling.

Pitcher instantly points out that Brian Paddick is gay. Paddick tries to look happy, fails, and has to endure a round of applause. ‘You’re fired,’ shouts a vicar in maroon; at whom, I have no idea. I was mad to think a religious hustings would be dull. An elderly man in a blazer stands and attempts a chancel invasion. He is covered in badges and buttons; I think one badge says ‘Prefect’. He looks like a Chelsea pensioner gone shitting mad. ‘This,’ he screams, ‘is not democracy!’ Bouncers move forwardly, uncertainly. Can they duff him up? Here? Pitcher listens courteously, then tells him to sod off. The bouncers hand him his Biros. He storms out with his book bag.

People ask about housing, air pollution and witchcraft. Boris and Ken are not allowed to address each other, so they practise various levels of looking aghast. ‘I am against witchcraft,’ says Boris. He says he has delivered on 90 per cent of his manifesto promises. ‘That’s not true,’ says Jenny Jones, mildly, ‘what he just said.’ Ken waves his head from side to side, gives a big, fake grin.

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Three days later, I meet Boris at the Polish Bakery near the North Circular, for a tour. His first problem is whether, when touring the bakery, he should wear a hat or a hairnet, which will make him look like the manager of the cheese counter at Asda. He asks his press officer for ‘the most catastrophic option’ and puts on a hat. They lead him to a table with an enormous round loaf on it; the managing director says, ‘It’s, er, bread.’ ‘How extraordinary,’ says Boris. ‘How beautiful!’ They also baked an enormous cake. ‘What an amazing cake,’ says Boris. ‘Am I receiving this cake as the mayor?’ His press officer says, ‘I think you are receiving it as a candidate.’ ‘This is an official mayoral cake,’ he says. ‘It will be properly declared. I’m not leaving without my cake.’ His press officer reminds him to take off the hat, so he doesn’t campaign as a baker; he says, ‘Okey cokey, let’s go.’

On we go to Wembley High Street. Local Tories rush him in and out of shops, where he hands out leaflets and asks for votes, with lowered eyes, deep voice and glowering pout: ‘I’m so sorry to disturb you, I’m campaigning for mayor, is there any chance of counting on your support?’ He pauses by a tiny Indian woman. ‘Can I count on your support?’ ‘Aunty will certainly give you her vote,’ says a local Asian Tory briskly, which I think is a bit much — what if Aunty wants to vote BNP? We walk: van drivers toot and scream ‘Boris!’; a bus driver waggles his finger, but lovingly; girls ask to have their picture taken with him. It rains. Boris says, ‘It’s going to come down folks’, opens a vast umbrella with ‘Back Boris 2012’ on it; his poor (female) gofer, who carries his coat, gets wet, and looks deeply oppressed.

We jump on the tube. Boris sits down and says, ‘It’s going to be a very tough fight. It’s going to go all the way to the wire’, which is what they always say; Putin probably said that, too, while setting fire to ballot boxes. I won’t repeat the stump speech (lower taxes v. Fidel Castro) but he does say that Ken spent £256 on hiking boots — ‘and where are the boots?’ I don’t know; maybe he gave them to Fidel Castro? ‘And what has happened to the bottles of Cognac?’ He bought six bottles of Cognac and claimed that he gave them to visiting mayors. I think as Mayor of London there are many things you may want to give as tokens of your pride in your city. But it strikes me that a bottle of French Cognac is not necessarily one of them. And so I have my doubts about this.’ (It is a Boris campaign strategy to fight on the minutiae or, better, not at all. Let the hair do the work). He sort of growls — grrrr! — and takes a question from the Times. The Times wants to know if he dyes his hair. He says not.

Later, I wait for Ken at Shepherd’s Bush. Ken is late — ‘On the bus,’ says his press officer — but he eventually rolls up with his labrador, Coco. The local councillor Todd Foreman has brought his dog, Jackie, who is wearing a red rosette. Jackie doesn’t like the look of Coco, and goes for her. (That, I am afraid, is the left; even the labradors get angry.) Ken walks down the road. He is supposed to be campaigning but I think he is actually walking his dog. The response to Ken is tepid. ‘Do you want to stand next to Ken,’ says his press officer to an activist, ‘so he’s not on his own?’ Ken freaks out because he thinks Coco has eaten a chicken bone: ‘What’s in your mouth, Coco?’ We climb into a car, for a visit to a community centre in Maida Vale. Is Jackie coming? ‘Jackie is off canvassing,’ says Todd. ‘Don’t dribble on Daddy’s leg,’ Ken tells Coco. He gives her a peculiar amount of attention, considering dogs can’t vote.

At the event, which contains 25 pale souls, I sit next an ancient woman. ‘I’m 93,’ she says, ‘I’ve got artificial legs. I’m a robot.’ We watch Ken unwrap a vast curl of housing insulation, to demonstrate how it works. A man asks a nine-minute-long question about asbestos, and then tries to come in with a supplementary. ‘You have already had the longest question of the campaign so far,’ says Ken. ‘Give someone else a chance.’ This is an old-fashioned Labour political meeting — technically interesting, but almost everyone drifts off. Who cares for policy in the Age of Grazia? I ask Ken about his waxwork in Madame Tussauds: ‘They’ve taken my waxwork down,’ he says, ‘but kept the head. If I win they will dig up the head and stick some clothes on it.’ So the mayor’s body is generic? Who knew?

Next, Ken appears at a youth knife-crime rally in a community centre in Paddington; I had to explain to Boris’s press officer, who is terribly innocent, that it was an against youth crime rally. I watch the Labour MP Stella Creasy trying to tweet in gangsta and Ken decline an invitation to ‘spit some bars’. So close to 3 May
, the press officers are tired. When I ask Ken’s press officer if the gospel artist Guvna B is actually a bee, she says, ‘I don’t know.’

•••

Saturday in Romford Market — the St George’s Day celebrations — and Boris does a walkabout with Mrs Johnson. The local Tory party is in its Sunday best; fat men in suits who look like bouncers but are actually Tory councillors block almost everyone except little old ladies and children from approaching — it’s lifeboats at the ­Titanic. Mike White, the Havering council leader, who is fatter and balder than the others, which is probably why he is their leader, is particularly protective; he keeps Boris in a kind of walking bear hug, which I’m not sure Boris appreciates. We go into the Romford Snooker Club, where Boris poses with a snooker table and a professional snooker player called Dell, then rushes out. I repeat what Boris says into my tape recorder. A London Assembly member called Roger Evans asks me if I have different voices for different candidates: ‘I do a good Ken,’ he says. And he does Ken, into the recorder: ‘What we want is more affooooordable housing….’ I must have stared because he continues, still in Ken: ‘That’s why I’m so disappointed that Boris has managed to build more than I did in my eight years as mayorrrrrr….’

Back to Boris, who is doing muscular handshakes with bald men in leather coats and flirting with little old women. ‘Don’t ever vote for anyone else,’ he booms at one little old lady, who starts to vibrate. It’s fairly disgusting, watching Boris ask women for their vote; I wonder how far he’d go, if only he had the time, and I think they do too.

Into the market place, which is hung with bunting. The band includes two tiny clarinet players dressed as colonial soldiers; they play ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. Boris poses with triplets and a random St George and his lady — ‘But he calls me his dragon.’ He has a brief chat with a fishmonger, who begins to complain about rents. Mike White, who I am seriously beginning to hate, says, ‘We know’, and ushers Boris away; Mrs Johnson steps forward, silently buys some fish. Some jugglers play with Boris, tossing clubs past him — people seem to like playing with him, as if he were a large child, or a toy. (‘Give Boris the teddy a big hug from me!’ said a friend, when I told her I was stalking him.) He gives out leaflets; he even signs leaflets, which may be a new low for political discourse. A florist persuades Boris to serve some customers; Boris attempts to climb the display in search of lupins and the attempt is abandoned. But it is an astonishing campaign. As The Spectator goes to press the polls are narrowing; even so, I suspect Boris will prevail. ‘Rule Britannia’ plays him out.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated