IN ONE corner is a large, cheery Tory, with mussed blond hair, a wry sense of humour and a notable ability to rise above the bad odour in which his party is currently held. Boris Johnson, 47, is the bookies’ four-to-one favourite to win a second term as London’s mayor in council elections due to be held overnight.
He is expected to vanquish his main opponent, former mayor Ken Livingstone, 67, whose low popular standing is also out of synch with the otherwise rising electoral star of the British Labour Party. This is a contest in which personality has prevailed over party politics.
A YouGov poll published on Monday gave Mr Johnson a four-point lead, even though those surveyed believed Mr Livingstone had achieved more in office (39 per cent to 32 per cent) and was more in touch with the concerns of ordinary people (37 per cent to 14 per cent).
But they liked Boris more; 35 per cent wanted to go out for a drink with him (only 16 per cent for Livingstone) and they also found him more charismatic (51 per cent to 14 per cent) and honest (22 per cent versus 14 per cent).
The campaign has been heated. As a bitter brawl about his non-mayoral income dragged on (Mr Johnson earns £250,000 a year for a weekly column with the Daily Telegraph), Mr Johnson at one point called Mr Livingstone “a f—ing liar”.
At another point, he said “f—ing bollocks” to a BBC camera. This was when he was challenged by a journalist over allegations he had been in talks with James Murdoch while News International was being investigated by police. The result: an instant boost in the polls. It added to his appeal as the Eton/Oxford posh-boy who is seen as being like ordinary Britons.
People buttonhole him on the street. Drivers wind down windows and shout “Go Boris!” — although the occasional driver begs to differ, with “Tory bastard!”
Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that Mr Johnson is seen as the non-Tory Tory: “You don’t have to be Conservative to vote for Boris; you can dislike all the political parties but you can vote for Boris because he has a big heart and he is doing the right thing for London.”
He is also doing the right thing for Boris. Mr Johnson, who has a high public profile because of his personal charm and the visibility of some of his initiatives, is thought to have ambitions for national political leadership.
Some have even touted him as a potential Conservative prime minister, and there is speculation that he might take advantage of any byelections that present themselves — though probably not until he has presided over the London Olympics.
His election policies this time round include promises to cut council tax, put 2000 more police on the beat and help create 200,000 jobs.
Mr Livingstone, who was mayor between 2000 and 2008, has pledged to help “ordinary Londoners” struggling with the cost of living.
Polls are taking place in 180 councils across England, Scotland and Wales.
First published in The Age.