de Pfwaffl

Boris Johnson was a sad sight on the Newsnight debate last night. Like a whipped cur, he shrank back, avoided saying anything, and cast around for fences to sit on.

Would he get rid of the western extension to the congestion charge? Well, yes. Or maybe no. \”I don\’t think it\’s working, but I\’m in favour of consultation. I will abide by what the people say.\” There are several problems here, apart from sheer issue-ducking. Consultation is not a decision-making deliberative process; it is a way of seeking public views on policies being proposed by politicians. It attracts only interested parties, and cannot confer a mandate. That\’s what elections are for.

It was interesting comparing this triangulated guff with the talk given by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, about ten days ago. Asked why he had moved so quickly to pedestrianise Rua de Flores (the project was completed in three days), Lerner replied that, once a decision was taken, it should be implemented fast to avoid self-doubt and bureaucratic obstruction and, most importantly, to prevent the whole discussion from starting again. Mayors rule. Or at least, if they don\’t, they have no place being mayors.

But Alexander Boris de Pfwaffl Johnson was not finished. He had more issues to dodge, and those issues were going to be dodged. How much would scrapping bendy buses cost? Less than replacing them with hybrid buses. Was the Mayor paid enough, too much or too little. Hard to tell.

You could not imagine a greater gift for Livingstone and Paddick. Against this mop-topped embodiment of evasive action, they could hardly look anything less than decisive and statesmanlike.

Bedfellows make strange politics

Amidst the second wave of Gilligantics (I think one can describe the man in question as having waves), the mayoral candidates and their proxies are setting out their pitches and sharpening their knives.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have, at one level, the same aim: they want the voters to take Boris Johnson seriously. Ken Livingstone has always emphasised the serious (and in his view seriously worrying) core behind Boris\’s bumblingly benign facade. Monday\’s poll showed that he needs to persuade wavering Labour party voters that a Johnson victory is a real possibility, and not a pretty one either.

So the two main candidates are locked in a p0-faced struggle for seriousness, a dullness decathlon (enough alliteration, ed.). Hence Livingstone\’s exclamations that \”this is not Big Brother\” and references to \’dog whistle\’ racism, hence Gordon Brown\’s craw-sticking emphasis on the serious nature of the Mayor\’s role, hence Jonathan Freedland\’s predictions of the decline of western civilisation in the case of a Johnson victory, hence Johnson\’s failure to say or do anything with a shred of wit or interest for several days.

Meanwhile, on the fringes, tactical alignments are being forged. Nick Cohen declares, with a hint of self-importance but also a grain of truth, that lefties should vote LibDem: if Brian Paddick comes third, his voters\’ second preferences may split equally between Johnson and Livingstone (or even favour Johnson as they did in Monday\’s poll), hence securing a Conservative victory. But if Livingstone comes third, his second preferences will almost all go to Paddick (errr, except those that Livingstone has already told to vote Green), hence securing a victory for Paddick.

The maths work, but the prospect of this level of switch away from Livingstone looks remote. That said, if the drip-drip-drip of insinuation and accusation continues, anything could happen.

Opening up

Following Jaspergate – or Jasper-ama to adopt Andrew Gilligan\’s more florid moniker – you can expect to hear a lot more about openness and accountability in the mayoral election campaign.

Boris Johnson and the Lib Dems had a first stab on successive days last week, variously pledging that they would make the City Hall register of interests public, would set up a code of conduct for mayoral advisers, would require them to attend question and answer sessions with the London Assembly, and would publish details of their responsibilities and contact details on the web.

Only some of this is new: elected officials already publish their register of interests (Livingstone\’s is here), and all staff (including mayoral advisers) are bound by a code of conduct and required to attend London Assembly hearings if summoned. Nevertheless, these proposals could make a difference to the openness of City Hall.

If they were implemented, that is. Readers with long memories may remember Ken Livingstone\’s Advisory Cabinet. This big-tent public committee was one of Livingstone\’s election pledges in 2000, and included Labour MPs Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Glenda Jackson (though not Frank Dobson), London Assembly members from all parties and assorted great and good from the worlds of race relations, disability and gay rights

The Advisory Cabinet met several times during Livingstone\’s first year in office (disconcertingly, this BBC Report of its first meeting includes a picture of an alarmingly chinless and younger me in the background). But after a while, initial enthusiasm faded, and with it the Advisory Cabinet: now a Google search brings up this ghost page.

The meetings had become, to use Bagehot\’s formulation, \’dignified\’ rather than \’efficient\’, with real decision-making and debate taking place behind closed doors. If Johnson or Paddick win, it will be interesting to see with how much gusto they follow through their current enthusiasm for flinging those doors open.

After the flood?

So, how much has Ken Livingstone been damaged by the relentless revelations that culminated this week in Lee Jasper\’s resignation?

The last poll published, by YouGov last month, showed Boris Johnson leading Ken Livingstone, by 44 points to 39 (a reversal of their positions a month previously), though the strongest gains were made by Brian Paddick, whose share of first preference votes increased from eight to 12 per cent.

In the wacky world of the mayoral election system, however, these first preferences are only part of the story. On this basis, the second preferences of those people voting for Paddick (and minority candidates) as their first choice, would be re-distributed among the front-runners. So the critical question is whether Paddick\’s votes are \’anyone but Ken\’ or \’anyone but Boris\’. That will make all the difference.

The fieldwork for the YouGov poll was conducted between 19 and 21 February, so the situation may well have worsened since then, as cringe-making personal emails became Lee Jasper\’s undoing. But, if the polls are only this bad, following weeks of destabilising and embarassing revelations, the Mayor might be forgiven for feeling a glimmer of optimism. Lee Jasper has resigned, the sheet has been wiped clean, a new beginning beckons…

And yet. It\’s always struck me as curious the fact that Andrew Gilligan\’s Lee-gate campaign began in December last year, fully six months before the mayoral election. Didn\’t such an early start run the risk that allegations would become old news in voters\’ minds by May? Shouldn\’t he have been keeping his powder dryer?

In today\’s Standard, in an article that gently chides Johnson for sloppy attention to detail on transport policy, Gilligan writes a sentence that might strike fear into hearts at City Hall: \”Luckily for Boris, all these questions have so far been largely drowned out by the ongoing Jasperama. I can promise more such entertainments in the future.\”

Gilligan is an odd and obsessive character, and this may be grandstanding. But, in the week when William Hill made Boris Johnson the favourite, I wouldn\’t want to bet on it.