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Sunday 22 July 2007

The tousle-haried toff versus the newt king

'THERE'S a stock speech I have in which I berate the British - and especially British politicians - for being altogether too namby-pamby, mollycoddled and risk-averse; and I think of that speech now as I contemplate the challenge of running for mayor of London," began Boris Johnson's article in Monday's Evening Standard. London's only proper newspaper is backing him.

As it hit the streets, Boris arrived at City Hall for his first public appearance as a candidate, to be greeted by a melee of TV crews, journalists, photographers, members of the public and tourists, pushing and shoving each other for a good vantage point.

BORIS JOHNSON: Saddling up for mayoral race

He "ambled into view," wrote a political correspondent, "one hand pushing a bicycle, the other stuffed into his trouser pocket. Tussock hair askew, he wore a black suit pockmarked by what may have been a cigarette burn on the left shoulder . . . Apart from a slightly careworn press officer, there were no political outriders, no heavies with CIA-style earpieces, no limousine or doors being held open. Just one bloke with a beaten-up bike."

His biographer, Andrew Gimson, was impressed to hear Boris's voice crying above the hubbub, "'We don't want a bicycle accident,' for the crush around him was by now so great that there was a danger that we might all fall over his bicycle, creating a pile-up worthy of the Tour de France." It was, observed Gimson, "evidence of a new-found maturity which renders him fit for high office." Ultimately, after fielding vaguely any questions he could hear, Boris climbed back on his bike and rode off into the traffic.

So why is he running against Ken Livingstone, the far-left, newt-loving, formidable incumbent with the nasal whine, whom Boris rightly describes as "one of the wiliest and most enduring politicians of the modern age," against the advice of those friends who said he would be better off concentrating on his Commons career?

"I have found myself brooding - like all paranoid politicians - on the negative voices, the people who say that the great King Newt is too dug in, that his positions are impregnable, his machine too vast and well-oiled. And having weighed up their warnings, over the last week, I say phooey."

Purple passages about London as "not just the Rome but the Athens of the global economy" were followed by the kind of soaring vision that lifts the spirits of Londoners fed-up with the political correctness of the present regime and Livingstone's relentless championing of such ghastly people as Gerry Adams, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and the Egyptian Islamist, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research and - though Livingstone denies it since he wants to keep the gay vote - an apologist for executing homosexuals.

"When I look at the streets of London," said Boris cheerfully, "I see a future for the planet, a model of cooperation and harmony between races and religions, in which barriers are broken down by tolerance and humour and respect - without giving way either to bigotry or the petty balkanisation of the Race Relations Industry."

As for accusations that he's a 'toff' (Eton and Oxford), "all I can say is, be my guest," wrote Boris, who comes of Turkish stock. "I have in my 16 great-grandparents - Muslims, Jews, and all manner of Christians, and speaking as a one-man melting-pot, I am convinced that in 100 years we will look back at the racism of our age and wonder, 'what the hell was that all about?' just as we find it hard to understand the mindset of those who used to put 'No Irish' on boarding-house doors.'

Boris believes that Londoners want a mayor "who not only gives a lead - andchampions the arts and culture of the city in everyway - but who also keeps his government simple, doesn't trample needlessly over the councils, and directs his intellectual energy at the core problems: transport, housing, crime. Improve those, get the city moving, and we will help to put the smile back on people's faces."

Boris fans are overjoyed and are rallying to him on Boriswatch.com and Facebook. Ken-lovers are enraged: 'Boris the jester, toff, serial liar and sociopath for mayor' wrote an apoplectic Polly Toynbee in the Guardian.

Can a man who can't even comb his own hair run a great city, 600 staff and a budget of almost stg£5bn? "He would either be a very good mayor, or a catastrophic one," said one observer. Knowing Boris professionally, I'd take the risk.

But first, he has to win the Conservative nomination. Although his eccentricity worries David Cameron, he's the only credible candidate. If you enjoy political theatre, the clash of the great mavericks and gaffe-perpetrators Boris and Ken will be pure bliss.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards