Cleverness in London, according to Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, was pervasive. Such a surfeit of cleverness bored him to tears. What he would have given, he exclaimed, for a fool. In the context of London mayoral politics, we have been privileged to witness several of the latter at play. Of the 10 mayoral candidates, there is one notable challenger to the incumbent: the Tory Member for Henley and former editor of the conservative Spectator, Boris Johnson.
The Conservatives, after a lengthy stint as Britain’s perennial disaster show, now look like they might snatch London on May 1. After the courtships of former BBC head, Greg Dyke and the DJ Mike Read ended quite calamitously (both refused to run), the Tories turned to the blonde beast from Henley.
Watching Johnson in his political career has made other scripts tedious. Never has political seppuku looked more appealing, let alone comedic. If Michael Foot was once described as the walking obituary of the British Labour party, then Boris might be considered the destructive, error-prone Tory jester, the smiling face of suicidal conservatism.
Struggling sitcoms would do well to introduce his bumbling charm onto the set to boost flagging ratings. Politics itself, long given to machine factories that churn out stodgy slogans and clichés from doctrinaire PR pundits, can certainly make use of the blonde beast from Henley. He may not win, but he will entertain.
And he has a fine record of it. His popularity skyrocketed with appearances on the quiz show Have I Got News for You. He has also exhibited an unfailing tendency to be caught with his pants down. The more prominent a position on the front bench of his party, the more likely he is to part with his pants at any given moment. Witness, for instance, his infidelities with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt. While Johnson described the allegations as ‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’, Wyatt disagreed.
His writings, much like his conduct, have a tendency to self-detonate. They are laced with amusing observations, many completely off the mark. Arguments often misfire, and Boris often finds himself caught within his own verbal pincer movement. A particularly amusing one is his belief that Europe needs some king of Pax Romana to be re-introduced. Like many Tories, he can’t quite understand how Europe can be united politically, yet be different culturally. But, he assures Londoners, he is one of them, a culturally sentient ‘one-man melting pot’.
BJ’s opponent is ‘Red’ Ken Livingston, who has not lost an election in 25 years.
Red Ken has done a spectacular job of making everybody from indignant Muslims in Bengali-run Brick Lane to CEOs in the business district back him. Courting both Allah and reactionary media vultures in an intense two-timing affair is something Johnson will find hard to match.
Having engaged in his fair share of buffoonery, an act that entirely fooled Tony Blair into initially supporting him, Livingstone’s staying power has proven miraculous. Having made the famous London subway extortionate in pricing with a peculiarly named ‘Oyster’ card (What next – a barnacle? A tortoise?), the coffers of the mayor’s office must look like El Dorado.
Livingstone has also imposed a congestion charge which has done little to unblock the streets of a clogged London. The heaving city continues to grow and choke, and the London Tube is groaning under the pressure of more commuters. They, as the shortest visit to the city will show, pay the highest fares in Europe.
In spite of all of this, Livingstone’s colleagues in other metropolitan centres can only admire him. New York’s Michael Bloomberg salivated at the prospect of implementing a ‘Ken’ agenda for that city, and proposed a regressive carbon tax in New York: $8 for cars and $21 for lorries. An unimpressed state assembly in Albany rebuffed the plan this month.
The trophy cabinet is bare for the Tories, and Boris has become their lead striker hoping to propel them to victory. If they can’t have No. 10, they can at least control the capital. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has opposed Ken Livingstone for years, is now spotted by his side at campaigning functions.
Johnson the political jester can’t believe his luck. He has even suggested the odd sound policy: phasing out the use of hideous ‘bendy buses’. But will have to do better than that. More police, or an ‘interactive bus tracking’ system will hardly solve London’s ills. Wilde would have been proud.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at email@example.com