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Sunday 6 May 2012

Boris won by breaking the mould

Mayoral elections in London boiled down to candidates' attitudes and behaviour, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

AT a time when his party has been trashed in the mid-term elections, incumbent London Mayor, Conservative Old Etonian classicist, intellectual and flagrant adulterer Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, defeated Labour ex-Mayor Kenneth Robert Livingstone, whose impeccable working-class credentials included being educated at a comprehensive school.

To put it another way, Boris beat Ken. And he beat him at a time when the British government, led by Old Etonian David Cameron, is being punished for being posh.

The two superficial explanations are that Boris seems authentic and he makes people laugh. He plays the bumbler for effect, but he unapologetically uses classical tags in his speeches. Boris probably won the election when word seeped out that, in a lift after a radio programme, he had accused Ken of being "a f**king liar" for suggesting he was a tax-avoider. The beauty of this was that it emerged that Boris earned a lot and paid maximum tax and Ken earned plenty and paid the minimum.

It isn't that the London electorate like four-letter words for their own sake: it's that Boris was furious, and betrayed a passion that seemed genuine. Londoners distrust and dislike politicians and think them plastic. Somehow, Boris breaks that mould.

Most politicians are afraid of making jokes, but Boris sees the funny side of everything, and the jokes burst forth. And many of them are quintessentially English in their self-deprecation. Boris is funny. If you've never seen his performance playing the eejit as chairman of Have I Got News for You, rush to watch it now. It's an absolute classic.

Ken can be witty, but there's a venom behind the wit and it's right-on and self-righteous. It illustrates the inner Ken. And, encouragingly, it was the inner Ken that helped Boris -- who is essentially genial -- to win this election.

Ken, a machine politician who dominated London politics from 1981 when he spearheaded a coup to become Labour leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), succeeded by dividing and conquering. He encouraged ethnic groups to compete for grievance recognition.

With the Irish, that involved welcoming Gerry Adams at a time when the IRA was bombing London. Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC to get rid of Ken, but he re-emerged as a London MP (after another coup), and when the post of Mayor of London was created, he held it from 2000 to 2008.

Notoriously, Ken literally embraced Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, guru of the Muslim Brotherhood and President of the Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research, who along with other nasty opinions, approved suicide bombings in Israel and condoned the execution of gays.

Ken didn't seem to grasp that if you take a radical position in one group, you upset another. In this election, he alienated Jews by saying that they were rich and therefore wouldn't vote for him. It wasn't only Jews that recognised that Ken was busy currying favour with Muslims, who outnumber Jews in London by about five to one. Homosexuals weren't too thrilled either when Ken said the Conservative Party was "riddled" with gays.

There are many ironies in this election. One is that it was Ken who made London politics personal, but Boris out-personalised him.

Another is that while Ken denigrated Englishness, Boris personified it, yet Ken is pure English and Boris is a mongrel who was actually born in New York and schooled in Brussels. Millions will have watched when, in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, Boris discovered links with royal ancestors in England and on the Continent. "I'm a Eurotoff," exclaimed Boris, instantly detoxifying the discovery. More useful was him finding that he was what he calls a "one-man melting pot", for the ancestors were also variously Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

My position in this election was summed up by a friend and senior journalist at a semi-formal lunch on Friday. "Well," he said, "I worked with Boris and I know his failings." Virtually everyone present nodded and laughed. "But. . ." I don't think he even finished the sentence. For us, there was no contest.

Ken divides Londoners; Boris unites them. He cycles through the streets, hair flying in the wind, and people shout and wave at him.

With the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics coming up, we electors opted for a wayward, funny, cheerful person -- rather than a proponent of class, ethnic and sexual grievances -- to represent our extraordinary city. Hoorah!

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards