Today’s shock opinion poll has enlivened a London mayoral race that looked dead from the start. Dead once because most commentators (including this one) assumed that Ken Livingstone couldn’t possibly beat a Boris Johnson who, despite severe early doubts, has proved a reasonably competent mayor. Dead twice because the race is an exact re-run of the last contest – even the no-hope Liberal Democrat candidate, ex-copper Brian Paddick, is up for a second mauling.
So, whatever your politics, today’s shock poll turnaround by Livingstone has a least quickened a contest that looked likely to be as turgid a battle as the last one was thrilling.
But perhaps a dull race was never really likely with such massive personalities involved. Let’s be clear: For all their manifold and deep flaws, Boris and Ken are among the most effective, skilled and intelligent politicians ever to grace the UK political scene. They are both, in their own way, supreme leaders.
Ken is a grumpy yet accomplished autocrat of the old-school, who has a deserved reputation for getting things done with ruthless, even cruel, efficiency. Massive, London-changing projects such as Oyster, the Congestion Charge, and the misnamed Boris Bikes were pioneered by the Labour man.
Boris, by contrast, is a much nicer, more genial chap who leads to be liked and likes to lead, much more in the manner of the modern manager. Yet he too has an effective ruthless streak – witness his masterful handling of pressure from his own party to remove the Congestion Charge. Rather than cave in, he removed the less-effective, less-important Western extension, while quietly bumping up the rate by 25% to £10 in the remaining central zone.
Behind the big faces are real policies. So maybe describing the race as a re-run of last time is not, actually, quite right. I suspect the recent hike in Ken’s support is down to policies rather than personalities, and that many converts have pledged to vote for him despite preferring the character of his opponent. Ken has pledged to keep transport fares down. And, perhaps crucially, he hasn’t championed spending £50 billion on an airport in the sea.
Policies still matter, and money always does. Perhaps the ultimate race of the egos might actually be won or lost on something more mundane – pennies in the public’s pockets.