Walter Bagehot’s masterwork, The English Constitution, famously distinguished the ‘dignified’ from the ‘efficient’ parts of government. The monarchy was part of the former, parliamentary democracy (still in robust health in the 1860s) was the latter.
The office of Mayor of London can be viewed in a similar way. The Mayor is the elected representative of the metropolis, with one of the largest personal mandates in Europe. Nationally, and internationally, he is seen as the capital’s voice, whether talking about his statutory responsibilities or offering views on world affairs.
But the Mayor also has specific duties, powers and functions. He is responsible for developing a curious ragbag of strategies, for allocating budgets, for overseeing the London’s transport, economic development, police and fire services, and for certain key planning decisions. The ‘dignified’ Mayor deals publicly in visions for London. The ‘efficient’ Mayor functions invisibly, working his limited powers and resources to deliver this vision, forever locked in titanic struggles with the apparatus of the state.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson. There is little doubt that he would be able to dominate the headlines like Ken Livingstone, and perhaps to cause offence to as many people. So that’s the ‘dignified’ (or perhaps ‘undignified’) role in the bag. But does he have the stomach for the detail, the serpentine cunning and tactical skill to wring money and powers from the state (the second most centralised after North Korea’s, according to current Mayor)?
Recent US history shows us that there is no barrier to buffoons forming governments, if they have the shadowy figures around them to undertake the nitty gritty of administration. And Boris Johnson is, of course, far less of a buffoon than he likes to appear.
Interestingly, he has also, in launching his campaign, gone straight for the policy jugular. A bit of robust abuse (“King Newt”), which will no doubt be repaid in kind, is combined with an attack on those fronts where Ken Livingstone is weakest: muggings, buses and the Underground. These may not be things that any Mayor can easily solve, but they are the irritants that scratch away at London’s world-beating veneer and at the daily lives of its citizens. Johnson has even managed to draw out the contrast between himself – the Old Etonian everyman on his bike – and Livingstone, who is as reluctant to ride a bicycle himself as he is keen to promote their use by others.
This promises to be a bloody, and entertaining, fight. Boris Johnson is right to describe the incumbent as \”\’one of the wiliest and most enduring politicians of the modern age.\” But If he can match his celebrity status with convincing Londoners that he means business, he could go the distance with the man who has come to personify London for the past seven years. London’s irreverent electoral mob might just swap one renegade for another.