Against the odds, what was expected to be an easy victory for the incumbent mayor of London, Boris Johnson, turned into a cliffhanger as his Labour rival and predecessor, Ken Livingstone, halved his first preference vote lead to 80,000 and forced a second round (there are first and second options on the London ballot papers).
With no candidates winning more than 50 percent on the first vote, the second preferences were allotted to the two winning candidates: Boris Johnson beat Ken Livingstone by approximately 60,000 votes in the second round, half his margin of victory four years ago.
Today was widely anticipated to be a bad day for David Cameron’s government, with a grim crop of midterm elections due. Johnson’s solid lead in the polls was hoped to provide a moment of electoral cheer for the coalition government, battered by allegations of incompetence, the scandal surrounding News International, and an economy reentering recession.
Instead, as the count wore on late into the day after polling, there were nail-biting moments, as Johnson’s lead slowly crumbled. Despite being called for Johnson by Sky News at 7 p.m., the results of the election were still uncertain at 10.30 p.m. with two mislaid ballot boxes, and looked certain to be a very tight result, determined by second preferences on the ballot.
This in itself is news. The rivalry between the two candidates—the newt-loving and acerbic “Red Ken” and his bumptious blond Etonian nemesis—had broken out in angry expletives after a radio interview a few weeks ago, and was dominated by personal allegations of tax avoidance against Livingstone. According to YouGov founder and pollster, Peter Kellner, “Londoners love Boris because he makes them laugh.” It doesn’t look like they were laughing quite so hard tonight.
David Cameron will view a close finish with mixed feelings. A triumphant Johnson could render his old rival as an even more powerful player in the Conservative Party, and a potential threat to his leadership. As Ken Livingstone suggested, in his concession speech “who is the next leader of the Conservative has already been settled.” However, a limping Boris, hobbled by a Labour-dominated London Assembly, could be even more dangerous, blaming his fate on the drag from Cameron’s coalition, which has seen the Tories fall to their lowest poll ratings for eight years.
In simultaneous local elections held across the U.K., Conservatives fell to 31 percent of the popular vote, and their Liberal Democrat partners reduced to 16 percent. Though political strategists had long predicted these elections would be hard for the coalition, after two years of austerity and rising unemployment the founder of Conservative Home, Tim Montgomerie, tried a bit of expectation management by claiming that anything short of 700 seats would be a disappointment for the Labour opposition.
As it was, the Labour Party made a net gain of 823 councilors at the expense of the Conservatives and Lib Dems, who lost around 400 seats each. Labour won overall control of 32 new local authorities, and managed to stave off a Scottish National Party threat in Glasgow. They also robbed the Tories of their majority in the seats in the London assembly.
But it’s Labour’s unexpected surge in the high-profile mayor of London race that will capture the headlines and cause more headaches for the beleaguered David Cameron in No. 10. By winning narrowly, even the Teflon-coated mayor of London will seem to be prey; a close result is also a tribute to Labour’s ground game. Polling stations in Labour districts were surprisingly busy Thursday, suggesting that the opposition party has honed its GOTV campaign, which caused unexpectedly good results in the general election in 2012.
Now the focus will be on the strength of the coalition. Several Conservative M.P.s used the occasion of last night’s council defeats to call for the Conservatives to be less obliging to their Liberal Democrat partners and return to their base. In London, the Lib Dem mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, came in fourth place behind the Green Party candidate, Jenny Jones. A former high-profile Lib Dem MP, Lembit Opik, called on his leader, Nick Clegg, to resign because of the party’s poor performance.
If the coalition thinks it has just scraped by with these results, there are still plenty of rocks ahead. Next week, the government will set out its policies for the forthcoming year in the Queens’ Speech; it will include a core plank of the coalition agreement—a bill to reform the House of Lords, which is even more likely to incite a Tory rebellion given the poor results.
Then there’s the wild card of the hacking scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s U.K. subsidiary, News International, which has seen 16 senior editors and the former executive, Rebekah Brooks, arrested in three large-scale police operations. Brooks and her former deputy, Andy Coulson, are due to testify at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics at the end of next week. After he left News of the World during the first hacking trials in 2007, Coulson was hired as Cameron’s communications supremo and entered No. 10 Downing Street in 2010 as the government’s senior press officer.
Brooks used to be a close friend of Cameron’s, and is a near neighbor at his constituency home. She is reported to have submitted private text messages to the Leveson Inquiry, which is set to look at the relationship between the press and politicians for the next two months.
A previous dump of evidence by Rupert Murdoch has already engulfed the culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, in scandal, and his special adviser was sacked for having inappropriate links with a News Corp. lobbyist. So damaging could next week’s revelations be that the government hurriedly applied for “core participant” status today, which gives it the ability to see evidence in advance. Lord Justice granted this to seven senior cabinet ministers and David Cameron. This would seem like a partial victory, but with a resurgent Boris Johnson perhaps challenging Cameron for the leadership of the party at a later date, there is little but damage limitation and pain to look forward to before the summer.