Stand by for London’s new class war

The mayoral race mirrors the political scene nationally: a Labour stalwart against a modern Tory. We should expect a tough and dirty fight

Published in the Evening Standard

The race to be London's mayor hardly needs to be talked up. It's already mesmerising, pitting two of the most compelling personalities in British politics, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson - who launched his campaign this week - against each other. And it's important: at stake is the largest direct electoral mandate in Europe bar the presidency of France, and executive authority over the greatest city in the world.

As if that's not enough, the London race is also set to be a trial run for the next general election. The Ken v Boris contest could foreshadow uncannily the Brown v Cameron battle to come - with London as a testbed for the entire country.

For a start, both clashes are serious, utterly at odds with the foregone conclusions that went before. No one expected Livingstone to do anything other than cruise to victory in 2000 and 2004, just as Labour has not been in electoral peril since 1992. But now it's different. The national polls, tightening once more after the initial Brown bounce, suggest David Cameron could indeed, as his lieutenants promise, give the prime minister the fight of his life. Similarly, most aides to Ken concede that Boris could present the mayor with the toughest challenge of his long political career.

The personalities involved yield remarkable echoes too. In both London and the nation, Labour will be represented by veteran stalwarts of the party, men whose careers in active politics extend at least thirty years. Both Livingstone and Brown are 24/7 politicians, men who served their apprenticeships in the stuffy rooms and draughty halls of endless meetings - whether in Fife or Brent East. As a result, they have become master sorcerers in the black arts of machine politics, perhaps the two toughest players of political hardball in the land.

Opposing them are a duo who could be twinned. Cameron and Johnson are both fortysomething English toffs, reared at Eton and Oxford, yet identified not with old-style landed Toryism, but the Notting Hill variety - with enough sex, drugs and rock-and-roll to put the libertine into libertarianism. They're informal, cycling, types, with the easy confidence that comes with great privilege.

The result is that the London clash of May 2008 and the next general election will both carry a tinge, stated or not, of class warfare. Listen out for the accusation that both Cameron and Johnson are "out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people" - code for, they're too posh to rule.

Most fascinating, the coming contests in both London and the country, present Labour with the same dilemma. Should they insist that, despite the media-friendly exterior, their opponents remain the same old hardline Tories underneath? Should they argue that both Boris and Dave may give good TV, but are actually Thatcherite wolves in telegenic sheep's clothing?

The Tories faced this choice themselves back in the mid-1990s, opting to cast Tony Blair as a mere mask for socialist old Labour: the result was the 'demon eyes', New Labour, New Danger campaign, now widely seen as a mistake. There is some temptation to make the same move with Cameron, to remind voters of his past service at the side of Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday or Michael Howard at the Home Office or in writing the hardcore manifesto of 2005. Cameron's recent remarks on immigration and crime will make that approach all the more appealing.

But in London the temptation for Labour to cast its opponent as a right winger in W11 disguise is even greater: indeed, some have already succumbed to it. The leftwing think tank, Compass, last month put out a dossier crammed with Johnson's most extreme sayings. No such document could be compiled on Cameron, chiefly because, unlike Boris, he has not been writing a newspaper column for more than a decade, but nor has he ever said anything quite as off the charts as the stuff Johnson has come up with on a twice-weekly basis.

Is this smart politics, fighting Cameron and Johnson as men of the right? In the Cameron case, probably not. As they did with Blair in 1997, most voters may well accept that the Tory leader has moved with the times and moved sincerely. Even if Londoners don't react that way to Johnson, they may let him off the hook for a different reason, summed up as "Boris is Boris." Quote the most lunatic Johnson statement - slamming Nelson Mandela, revering George W Bush - and it will be waved aside as simply a jolly Johnson jape. Don't be so earnest, comes the response; he was only joking. Viewed like this, no amount of expose [acute accent] can hurt Boris: it's all written off as part of the man's lovable rogue persona.

But there is a big but, especially in London. An estimated one in three of this city's voters are not white. They might not be quite so insouciant about a would-be mayor who refers to black Africans as 'picaninnies,' not only in a Telegraph article but also in a documented conversation with a Swedish Unicef team (and their black driver) while on a trip to Uganda. If London's black press is anything to go by, there is bafflement and rising anger that such a word is even in the man's vocabulary let alone that he should use it so easily, along with his reference to Africans ' "watermelon smiles" or his condemnation of Mandela for bringing the "majority tyranny of black rule" to South Africa.

If this were New York, Johnson's candidacy would be dead in the water on the strength of those remarks alone; no prospective mayor could survive them. It says something interesting, and perhaps not flattering to us, that different rules apply here in London.

Ken's team insist they are not bent on demonising Johnson as Enoch Powell with funny hair. They say the importance of Boris's past sayings is that he is inconsistent, forced to U-turn wildly to present himself as a cuddly, cosmopolitan type now - and that his real problem is desperately bad judgment. Which is precisely the charge Brown will hurl against Cameron.

There is, however, one way to avoid the mayor's race becoming a dress rehearsal for the general election. Brown could simply go to the country on the first Thursday in May 2008, so that the two contests happen on the same day. Since such a move would shaft Boris - forcing him to choose whether he wants to fight his parliamentary seat in Henley or seek the mayoralty - it may just prove irresistible, to Gordon and Ken alike.