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January 04, 2007

If the Tories are to beat Ken Livingstone, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson must run for the Conservative Mayoral nomination, argues Harry Phibbs

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs argues that if the Tories are to have any chance of beating Ken Livingstone in London's next mayoral elections, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson must run for the Conservative mayoral nomination. The views expressed here are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

For those like me who voted against the establishment of a Mayor of London when Tony Blair allowed a referendum on the proposal, it is hard to accept that the post is here to stay and that we should make the most of it.

I should declare an interest as a local councillor for one of the London Boroughs, Hammersmith and Fulham. But it is not some power crazed or partisan motive that makes me wish power could be taken from Livingstone and given to the Boroughs. It is because of my rather fashionable belief in localism. If there was a Tory Mayor and a Labour Borough I would still say let the Borough decide on planning consent. The Government are pushing in the opposite direction - centralising. Taking power on issues such as planning and giving them to Mayor of London is part of Livingstone's empire building.

Slashing the Mayor's wasteful spending would be a realistic expectation if a Conservative with the right instincts and rigour was elected to the post. It would be challenging to get the staffing levels at City Hall down to more sensible levels but certainly not impossible - anymore than it has been in Council's like Wandsworth. Similarly it would be entirely reasonable to anticipate that as Prime Minister David Cameron would transfer power from the Mayor to the Boroughs.

The Tories have already made their preference clear in amendments to the GLA Bill currently in Parliament. The Shadow Housing minister Michael Gove, in a letter to his fellow Tory MPs, says:

We will also introduce amendments to define more precisely how the Mayor consults Londoners (after the congestion charge issue), to probe how the Mayor conducts his own foreign policy (towards Cuba and Venezuela, for example), to give Londoners the chance to mount a petition so we can have a recall referendum on the Mayor's continuance in office (a power analogous to the one exercised against the governor of California before Arnold Schwarzenegger) and to give the Assembly more power to amend the Mayor's budget and strategy. The spirit of all these amendments is directly devolutionary.
Since Gove is taking such an interest maybe he should put his name forward to be Tory candidate. He is articulate, confident, and well connected in the media having been a journalist on The Times.

Another good candidate would be his fellow Tory MP Boris Johnson. Both would be the sort of "big hitters" it is felt are needed to challenge Livingstone. There is a feeling that a big hitter is needed to raise funds to fight the campaign, to keep a steady nerve during TV debates and to satisfy he apparent demand of the electorate to have a "character" as Mayor of London. Steve Norris is a big hitter and hovers between ruling himself in and out but he has already stood twice and his willingness to take on the Jarvis chairmanship after being selected last time was detrimental.

Gove has a lower profile than Johnson and less natural capacity for the theatrical showmanship and the media stunts that a Mayoral campaign requires. On the other hand this would mean Gove would be taken more seriously by that element who (wrongly) dismiss Boris as a buffoon. I think the idea of persuading a non politician to stand - such as a businessman, DJ (Mike Reid), phone in presenter (Nick Ferrari), retired policeman (Lord Stevens), businessman (David Ross), etc - is risky. The advantage Livingstone has is being a celebrity and a politician.

The problem is neither Gove nor Johnson (who are both good friends and early supporters of the Tory leader David Cameron) have given any indication of being interested in standing.

Several good candidates have put themselves forward. There is an argument that their relative obscurity doesn't mater because once chosen as a candidate their profile would rise automatically and dramatically. I hope this is right and that Tony Benn's oft repeated dictum that it is "about issues not personalities" would prevail. For example I have a high regard for the Kensington and Chelsea councillor Warwick Lightfoot who could run a campaign of substance offering a change from Livingstone's gimmicks. The trouble is the approach of fighting on policy has not worked hitherto.

Livingstone has got away with broken promises (most brazenly on how he wouldn't stand as an independent but also on many other things such as how he would save the Routemaster) and unpopular policies but still won because he is regarded as a "character".

The choice and prospects of the Tory candidate will be the key point of interest. The Lib Dems performed badly last time with Simon Hughes MP who will certainly have been disappointed and may or may not stand again - the latest indication is that he would not. There is no prospect of Livingstone being challenged for the Labour nomination despite his many enemies in the Party.

So "big hitters" like Gove and Johnson should pitch in. They may have seats outside London. So what? Both have lived in London for many years which is what counts. Boris managed to hold down being Spectator editor and an MP. If either he or Gove is elected Mayor they should be allowed to retain their seats in Parliament which would give them the option of switching to Ministerial office at a later stage. It would also be an advantage for the Mayor to be an MP and so keep in touch with Ministers and London MPs in the division lobbies and the tea rooms.

In 1977 Horace Cutler became leader of the Greater London Council after the Tories swept to power in the GLC elections. He promoted home ownership, cut wasteful spending and scrapped the trade union closed shop. His success paved the way for Margaret Thatcher's two years later. This is the pattern the Tories need to repeat. It is no good ambitious Tories ignoring it and waiting for Ministerial office after the General Election. To win the General Election there must be the foundation of success for the Party of which winning the Mayoralty will be a vital plank.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and a Conservative Councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.

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My main concern over Boris Johnson is that he is a bit too much of an admirer of the Roman Empire. One gets the feeling that he would have approved of throwing Christians to the lions because they wouldn't worship the emperor.

One question, though - within the Boris orbit, what is today's equivalent of emperor worship?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 15, 2007 03:10 PM

Draft Boris, this is a tele-democracy, he is a performer. He will crucify Ken.

Posted by: Guido Fawkes at July 4, 2007 07:48 PM

Many congratulations, Harry. I think you were the first to predict Boris' success!

Posted by: Graham Smith at May 5, 2008 05:18 PM
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