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Sunday 12 August 2007

London's calling to Boris, but his rivals are closing in fast

THE application form Boris Johnson submitted for the Conservative nomination for London Mayor asked for three "examples of challenges you have faced and the outcome".

There have been many memorable challenges in Boris's life; quite recently the embarrassment of tabloid coverage of two extra-marital affairs and the press frenzy when his party leader sent him to Liverpool to apologise for his magazine's claim that Scousers wallow in victim-status. (Outcome in both cases: he got away with it. Just.)

Boris chose safer ground:

"1. Trying to help raise four children in inner London. Outcome too early to call, but looking promising.

"2. Taking on Blair and Campbell in the battle of Black Rod's Memorandum on the Queen Mother's Lying-in-State (Blair's heavies tried unsuccessfully to force the relevant parliamentary official, General Sir Michael Willcocks, aka Black Rod, to give the prime minister photo-opportunities at the event in Westminster Hall and briefed savagely and mendaciously against him following press stories). Outcome: total victory.

"3. Negotiating Hyde Park corner by bicycle. Outcome: survival."

Boris's enemies, however, are busy challenging his preferred image of family man, big political hitter and intrepid environmentalist. Ken Livingstone is trying to stop him being nominated. (Boris is up against three unknowns in the primary to be held on September 26: modelled on the American system, the primary is open to anyone qualified to vote in the mayoral election next May if they register to participate.) The Kennites have been frantically trawling the millions of words Boris has written in search of lethal ammunition.

Ken denounced him, first for his poor voting record as an MP, until it emerged that his own attendance record when he was in the Commons had been much worse. Then Ken accused him of being a Bush "acolyte" and so right-wing he made Norman Tebbitt look liberal. Last week, the Kennites briefed what Alastair Campbell called "quote sluts" -- ie, people who say what it doesn't suit you to say yourself.

First, Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered black teenager Stephen, told the press that Boris was unfit to be mayor because he had criticised the Macpherson report on the botched police investigation: he would destroy the city's happy multiculturalism. It didn't stick. Boris's main criticism had been of the Orwellian recommendation that it should be a crime to use racist language in the home; and Londoners are these days disillusioned about the ghettoisation produced by multiculturalism.

Then the Guardian -- the Kennite house-organ -- ran an article by Chuka Umunna, an organiser for the Black Socialist Society, who wrenched Boris jokes out of context as proof that he was racist. So vicious were many of the comments by Kennites on the paper's blog that it felt duty-bound a few days later to run a pro-Boris article.

The ensuing fierce, and highly entertaining, debate on the paper's blog included accusations that in addition to being a buffoon and a racist, Boris is to the right of Genghis Khan, is more suited to the 18th century London of coffee-houses and whorehouses and shouldn't be considered because he isn't a pure-bred Londoner -- a perplexing accusation from the left.

My favourite contribution came from a blogger called salofinkelstein: "We have a book at home for our little daughter. It's called 'Calm Down Boris!' It comes with a pop-up shock-haired sock puppet. Essentially Boris is a very noisy monster with someone else's hand up his arse, who just wants to be loved but frightens all his friends with his loud voice. In the end, though, he wins everyone's affection by scaring off a big nasty dog."

Boris is keeping his mouth shut for now about the big nasty dog and is pulling together people and policies. All we have to go on is what he described on his form as London's top priorities.

"As a cyclist I am daily exposed to the beauty and magic of London -- but also to the daily frustrations that erode the quality of our lives. I see the yellow billboards sprouting in the streets, pleading for information about the latest stabbing, reminding Londoners that street crime is worse here than New York.

"I see the hollow-eyed look of people emerging from the Tube after another miserable experience, and the rage on the faces of drivers stuck behind a bendy-bus (the hugely unpopular replacement for the much-loved two-deckers Ken had promised to keep).

"I move in a trice past the stuccoed villas of the mega-rich to areas of real poverty and deprivation, and I see families stuck in grossly overcrowded flats, with no hope of a way out.

"The big challenges facing London are crime, transport and housing, and I will deal with them by keeping the mayor's government simple, recruiting the ablest people across London -- of whatever political affiliation -- to formulate new policies for the core problems that affect our everyday lives."

We'll see.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards