This Thursday the two most arresting politicians in Britain slug it out for the chance to become–both of them for the second time–London’s mayor.
Despite the legendary Dick Whittington, whose ascent to the Lord Mayor’s office began back in the mists of time when he hiked into town with his cat and knapsack, the mayor as London’s master, symbol and sometime punching bag only arrived very recently. Until 20 years ago, power in the British capital was wielded collegially, by an elected council. The first London mayor in history to have a profile comparable to Daley, Koch, or Bloomberg was Ken Livingstone, elected in 2000–and he is Labour’s candidate again this time around, slugging it out with the Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson.
And what a pair they make. Livingstone is the last major British left-winger who really is left-wing. Labor’s ranks are packed with teenage Trotskyites who morphed into besuited managers, indistinguishable except sometimes in accent and manners from the Tories opposite. Livingstone was an unreformed hard-left socialist, expelled from the Labour Party because he actually espoused the values it pretended to stand for. He became Labor’s candidate to become London’s first-ever mayor despite Tony Blair’s fierce hostility. And although he appeared to be on the wrong side of history, coming to power after the fall of the Soviet Union, he was a brilliant success. He used the wealth generated during the boom years to greatly improve London for ordinary Londoners, improving public transport, building thousands of affordable homes, introducing the world’s first-ever congestion charge for a major city and making a great success of it, and finally clinching the Olympics for London.
At the same time this man with a nasty nasal twang and the charm of a piranha fish spoke out in support of radical Islam, the Irish Republican Army (which had been murdering Londoners in terror attacks only a few years before) and President Chavez of Venezuela–and London forgave it all, admiring his guts. In 2004 he won a second four-year term.
Meanwhile a Conservative ex-journalist called Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a man with a haystack of ash blond hair and a talent for amusing self-deprecation, was establishing himself in the affections of the nation as a bumbling buffoon, a character out of upper-class pre-war novels like Just William and Leave it to Jeeves.
Johnson had worked his way swiftly up the ladder in journalism to edit the Spectator, the venerable Tory weekly. He was already a star: during the general-election campaign of 1997, he had only to show up at a press conference as a reporter to brighten the mood, because now we knew there would be some sharp and funny questions. But he was the last man one could imagine harboring serious political ambition. Even after he sauntered into Parliament as M.P. for Henley and then in to the shadow cabinet, he seemed to be nothing but a posh clown, a hit on celebrity TV-panel shows, a philanderer who didn’t give a hoot who knew about his numerous dalliances–he was finally expelled from the shadow cabinet because of the embarrassment caused his party by one long-running affair.
BoJo, as he became known, had it all: brains, wit, money, four children, and a beautiful wife who seemed not to care where he spent the night, the admiration of his peers. What more could he possibly want?
Considerably more, as it happened. He disguised it well but it slowly emerged that Boris Johnson was fiercely ambitious. Bored and thwarted at Westminster, he turned his eye on the new biggest job in the country. The Tory party was just as unwilling as Labour had been to see a maverick individualist running London in its name, but Johnson made the cut, and after a gripping and very funny campaign, in 2008 he beat Livingstone into second place to become London’s second-ever mayor.
What would he do with the job? With the financial markets crashing around his ears a few months into his term, most of his effort went into keeping the show on the road–with one striking exception.
Johnson was an early supporter of plans to build a new airport on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary, just off England’s east coast, which would in time and with massive investment replace Heathrow as London’s hub, the world’s biggest international airport.
Heathrow, out on the capital’s western fringe, started life as an aerodrome for Spitfires and Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain and became the nation’s most important airport by accident. Its growth has been unplanned and haphazard, making it often an exhausting and unpleasant airport to use.
Heathrow has been operating beyond capacity for years, and a host of politicians and business lobbyists have been demanding the building of a third runway to give it a new lease of life. But this, like all previous expansions of the airport, is to ignore one glaring fact about Heathrow: every day of the year, hundreds and hundreds of the world’s biggest passenger airplanes cruise the entire length of central London, from east to west, to arrive there. In the process passengers enjoy unrivalled views of one of the world’s most splendid capitals. But down below, millions of Londoners from the queen on down are gritting their teeth and plugging their ears. The Boris Airport (as it has become known) would, its supporters argue, be London’s long-overdue answer to JFK, eventually removing a major source of sound and air pollution. And Johnson is the only heavyweight British politician who has thrown his weight behind it.
In 2008, the Red Ken-BoJo contest four years ago was political cabaret. This time around it’s a grudge match. And it’s still neck and neck.
Of the two men, Livingstone has far more substantial achievements to boast of from his two terms. Johnson’s record by contrast is thin: his most conspicuous achievement was to introduce a citywide bicycle-rental scheme–but very similar schemes were already in place across France, Italy, and beyond. And it had been Livingstone’s baby before Johnson adopted it.
What makes the election result hard to predict with any precision is that many voters are expected to go against their usual persuasion, as they did the previous two times. London is on balance a left-leaning city, which is why BoJo’s election was such an upset in 2008. This time around the polls have given him a small but by now fairly well-established lead over Ken, partly because, while Johnson is only 47 and still exudes youthfulness—since the ascent of Tony Blair the sine qua non of success in British politics—Livingstone, though far from decrepit, looks all his 66 years and often sounds sour and petulant.
These personal factors—Johnson’s charm on the one hand, Livingstone’s wrinkles and sourness on the other—may have even more of an influence in this election than was true last time around: everywhere in the world, electorates are prone to make up their minds for reasons which are more or less frivolous. But if millions of Londoners were to place their vote with their eyes set firmly not on the next four years but the next 40, there is little doubt that they would vote for Boris Johnson. For all the financial, technical, and environmental challenges it poses, the Boris Airport is the single boldest and most visionary idea for transforming Britain since the Channel Tunnel. The mayor has no power to bring it into being, but with Johnson back at the helm it might at last begin to seem no longer a joke or a wheeze but a real possibility—and the only way to ring down the curtain on the nightmare that is Heathrow.