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Enter the jester
London elections 08: If you voted for Boris, perhaps you might like to ask yourself these questions before you start celebrating
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May 2, 2008 11:59 PM | Printable version
Strange how the cycles of electoral politics can be so out of kilter with developments in the real world. British politicians may affect to be consumed by the threat of climate change, rising inter-ethnic strife at home and abroad and the need to avenge the death of social mobility via supposed "meritocracy", but look what's just happened. The UK's capital city is set to be run by a one-time opponent of the Kyoto treaty, apparently prone to racist outbursts, who also just happens to be a Wodehousian embodiment of the fact that nothing guarantees success like a very expensive education.
What the world's media will make of this is a very interesting question, though one can surely envisage the idea of London as the ultimate switched-on metropolis - the political class's beloved "world city" - beginning to wilt.
Instinctively, as the mind begins to wrap itself around the idea of a Johnson mayoralty, a few thoughts spring to mind. First, not just about the poisonous role played by the Evening Standard, but that ad hoc alliance of supposed "left" voices - like Andrew Gilligan, recently quoted in the Guardian voicing the absurd opinion that the Conservatives might now be the more "progressive" party - and their share of the blame for what's happened. For transgressions so well-covered that they barely needed mentioning, Ken Livingstone may have needed calling to account (indeed, I had a go here), but Gilligan, the New Statesman's Martin Bright and the Observer's dependably out-there Nick Cohen went way further than that, thanks in part to the topsy-turvy, faux-progressive politics minted by the self-styled pro-war left. Their arcane conversations about Livingstone's alleged ties to ultra-left sects, alleged sympathies with Islamists and room service bills are now presumably at an end, while corks are already popping in the home of such neo-Thatcherites as George Osborne, William Hague and Liam Fox. The chances of a David Cameron government taking power and laying waste to what remains of the welfare state and the public sector ethos are now all the greater. Happy now?
Having said all that, Livingstone himself shoulders at least some of the blame. Long a lone operator who turned his isolation into his pitch for the 2000 race, he never really built himself the coalition of high-profile support that his fusion of green and left(ish) politics might have attracted. His response to the brouhaha surrounding Lee Jasper was somehow both hesitant and unpleasantly belligerent, and allowed the affair to rumble on long enough to do him real damage. The tenor of his campaign was dull and technocratic, built on the idea of maintaining London's "success" and rolling out such projects as Crossrail, while omitting any sharpened messages on what kind of city Livingstone wanted to create. What of the capital's rising divisions in wealth and living standards? His decision to oppose the government's plans for the £30,000 levy on non-doms hardly helped; the left aspects of his politics have recently been too bound up with borderline irrelevant showboating - as with his links to Hugo Chávez - rather than meaningful engagement with the nitty-gritty.
He was, let us not forget, newly advised by such high-ranking Blairites as his Cabinet chaperone Tessa Jowell, the venerable Alastair Campbell and the ex-Prime Minister himself. Not that I have any inside track on their discussions, but you rather wonder whether what now passes for New Labour strategy - clinging to the approach that brought success in 1997 and 2001, thinking that hard-hitting lines are box-office poison and really gunning for the Tories is non-U - had too much influence on Livingstone's lacklustre pitch. There again, when it comes to the interface of London and national politics, even the feistiest techniques may well have foundered. Livingstone's goose, after all, may well have been decisively cooked by the Brown government's miserable travails, and the political watershed that was the abolition of the 10p tax rate.
But never mind all that. Livingstone's policy record made him by far the UK's most progressive incumbent politician. Had he won a third term, belatedly forged the right alliances and learned a few of the lessons of recent months, he may yet have sealed the idea that Labour had much to learn from him. Well, tough luck: we've now got the fella with the hair and the utterly mysterious plans for office: as Simon Heffer recently put it, an "act" rather than a substantial politician.
So, a couple of points. If you voted for Johnson, perhaps you can help by offering answers to some very simple questions. If he could credibly put his past opinions behind him and present a new convincing face, why did he spend the whole campaign running scared of any meaningful encounter with any journalist? If you cleave to the idea that he may somehow invent a new strain of "progressive" Tory politics, perhaps you could fill us in about what policies for the capital might reveal exactly what this means? Or was this just about - and I'm clutching at straws here - an opportunistic pitch on crime, that yawn-inducing stuff about Routemaster buses and a very British desire to upset the applecart?
In among such dark clouds, there are apparently two bits of silver lining. First, there have been at least muted whispers from high-up Tories about fears that Johnson may so screw up that he'll threaten the prospects of a Cameron government (as I write, you can bet that tough aides and advisers are being pushed his way by Tory HQ at a rate of speed). Second, there is at least a smattering of good news about the British National party: having aimed at up to three seats on the London Assembly, they reportedly look set to win only one, while they've lost two councillors in Epping, and made no breakthrough in their target area of Thurrock. On an otherwise bleak day, such little things mean a lot.