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It has to be Boris

The government’s failings have hampered his campaign but he must prevail

28 April 2012

4:00 PM

28 April 2012

4:00 PM

The government’s failings have hampered his campaign but he must prevail

A few weeks ago, Mich­ael Gove addressed a crowd of Tory activists in the basement of a London hotel. He wanted to disabuse them of what he regarded as a dangerous notion. The London mayoral election, he said, was not about Boris Johnson vs Ken Livingstone; the stakes were far higher than one man for one city. They had nationwide implications. This is a critical moment in the lifetime of parliament, he said, which will set the trajectory for the next few years — for good or for ill. The London election was one of these very rare ‘watershed binary moments’ for British politics as a whole.

The Education Secretary spelled out the two alternatives. ‘One is that we will be re-elected, Ed Miliband’s flailing leadership will receive another blow and Conservatism will have been affirmed in the greatest city in the world and we will be on course for a majority. Or we’ll lose. The second half of this parliament will be about Labour being on the turn, coming back ready to govern and David Cameron will be seen as someone who is potentially a lame duck, who has his most powerful campaigner defeated. Someone who clearly has the momentum running away from him. It’s as simple as that, and unless we secure that victory for Boris, all the momentum that we’ve been able to generate in government will dissipate.’

Gove was speaking last month, when the Tories were ahead in the polls and George Osborne had yet to deliver what may be remembered as the most politically disastrous budget of modern times. A pile-up of government errors has followed and, now, confirmation that we are in a double-dip recession. Labour is ten percentage points ahead nationally, and a stunning 19 points in London. The election would be a walkover for Labour were it not for Boris’s popularity among non-Tories, and the contempt which so many Labour voters have for Ken. The question in this election is how fast Boris can swim against the anti-Tory tide.

The Mayor is standing for re-election with as good a record as you can expect from a job with so few powers. London now has about 8,000 ‘Boris bikes’, which have been taken for ten million rides. He has expelled the cyclist-squashing bendy buses, presided over a ten per cent cut in crime and menaced Downing Street enough to safeguard the budget for the Crossrail project. The Greater London Authority tax was frozen — saving the average Londoner a cumulative £445, and Boris says he’ll cut a further ten per cent if re-elected. Not bad for a man once portrayed by his enemies as a bumbling blond, unfit to govern.

But this election is not, alas, about what Boris has achieved. The issues on the doorstep are housing, jobs and the cost of living — all of which fall under the aegis of Cameron’s increasingly unpopular government. Boris might have been able to laugh off relatively trivial stories about pasty tax, and Theresa May getting the dates wrong for Abu Qatada’s extradition process. But there is nothing laughable about a double-dip recession, record youth unemployment — or the feeling that Cameron’s government is on the wrong track and needs to be sent a message.

Boris’s aides have watched aghast as the government has muddled its way into disaster after disaster. On Friday, Britain loaned £10 billion to the IMF. This was followed on Monday by headlines about even deeper cuts to government in Britain. On Tuesday, the Leveson inquiry had James Murdoch hanging out a substantial chunk of the government’s dirty laundry. On the Wednesday, confirmation of recession. Boris’s support tends to run an extraordinary 12 points higher than the Tory average. But the Mayor, for all his charm and appeal, is powerless to prop up the foundations on which his support is based.

Ken Livingstone is a bad candidate with a bad campaign. But what is keeping Boris’s aides awake at night is the sheer scale and power of the wider Labour apparatus. The trade unions have 800,000 members in London and specialise in swinging elections, as they demonstrated when helping Ed Miliband beat his brother David two years ago. Labour strategists also regard London’s 600,000 Muslims as a useful wild card, who may be capable of springing a surprise as they did in Bradford East by-election. George Galloway has been in town, speaking in support for Livingstone. Those around Boris are sceptical that Muslims vote as a bloc — but after the shock of Bradford, no one would be certain.

There was a time when the Prime Minister would have seen an upside to a defeated Boris. The two have long had a soft rivalry, more personal than political. Cameron has been known to say that his fellow Eton, Oxford and Bullingdon graduate was ‘stuck in a buffoonish rut’. The Mayor complains that the Prime Minister is dull. ‘I’m off to be bored for London,’ Boris said once, en route to dinner with Cameron. He gets on with George Osborne better, but also enjoys teasing the Chancellor in public. ‘When’s the recovery coming?’ he shouted at Osborne at a party early last year. ‘June 2012,’ the Chancellor shot back — i.e., too late for Boris’s election campaign. In those days, Tories could still joke about economic failure.

The shambles of the last few weeks will, at the very least, have destroyed any vestige of complacency. The stakes are every bit as high as Gove described them, and the reasons for backing Boris Johnson — or urging friends and relatives in London to do so — are greater now than ever. The Mayor matters because he represents a certain strand of Conservatism, unashamed about Tory principles and unafraid of making unpopular arguments. His Toryism is one of tax cuts, standing up for British bankers and defying the European Union when it threatens our prosperity. Boris embodies the rejection of the Blair/Clinton ‘triangulation’ politics, where the least offensive politician is deemed the most successful.

This election was always about more than just London. It is about how we do politics, who fights and who wins. Over the last 20 years, our politics has been reduced into a battle for swing voters in swing seats. This has led our political class in a certain direction, directed by the sat-navs of the opinion polls and focus groups. Boris has defiantly set off in another direction, guided by instinct and brio. And this is why his victory matters so much.

Fraser Nelson discusses the London elections on this week’s ‘View from 22’ podcast:

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