Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Only two people have held the post of elected London mayor since it was created in 2000, each with egos to match a capital city bulking up on globalisation and rapidly expanding towards a population of 10m.

Between 2000 and 2008, the post was held by Labour’s Ken Livingstone, the self-styled voice of London’s underdogs, charging bankers a congestion charge to drive their Range Rovers into the City in order to fund updates to the Tube and buses.

Then came Tory Boris Johnson, winning over a traditionally Labour city with his eccentric style and embrace of London as a cosmopolitan, skyscraping, money-making machine; he also became the public face of a joyous Olympic Games. But Johnson says he will not seek a third term as London mayor in 2016 and is plotting a return to national politics. The capital will soon be looking for a new leader to guide what is arguably the ultimate global city into a new era from 2016.

The post of London mayor has relatively limited formal powers, but both Livingstone and Johnson have shown that a big character can turn it into a big job.

The main focus is on who Labour will field as its candidate, with a widespread expectation that the capital will return to type and swing to the left after its dalliance with the Old Etonian Johnson. Local elections in London in May saw Labour win 1,052 council seats, compared with 612 for the Tories and 118 for the Liberal Democrats. The mayoralty is Labour’s to lose.

The party’s potential candidates are already milling around the starting line, with the early frontrunner seen as Dame Tessa Jowell, the popular former Olympics minister who helped deliver the project in 2012. As with most of the other possible Labour candidates, Jowell says she is focused solely on helping her party win the 2015 general election. She says she has a “big decision to make” but that she is “devoted to London” and believes the city’s mayor will have an important role to play in giving the capital the infrastructure it needs to keep pace with its growing population.

Jowell points out that housing has become so expensive that half of London’s police officers live outside the capital; she believes 200,000 homes could be built on brownfield sites. “Boris will be remembered for capturing the zeitgeist of the Olympic period, but he won’t be remembered as someone who delivered the essential infrastructure that safeguards London as the world’s leading capital city,” she says.

Whoever emerges as Labour’s candidate, a common prospectus is already emerging based on the need to promote new housing, new rail systems and greater investment in buses across the sprawling metropolis.

While Jowell was regarded as a touchy-feely minister who built consensus across party lines, other Labour candidates are more at the abrasive Livingstone end of the scale.

Diane Abbott was the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons in 1987 and is seen as a strong potential rival, with a strident left-wing appeal to the Labour activists and registered supporters who will choose Labour’s candidate in a “closed primary”. Independent-minded and outside the Labour mainstream (like Livingstone), Abbott said last year: “Londoners don’t want a party hack. Big cities never want a party hack – they want someone who is independent and who will stand up for them.”

The other leading candidate of Labour’s soft left is Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting, who ran the campaign of Ed Miliband for Labour leader and is now the party’s spokesman on the capital. His London brief gives Khan the luxury of being able to promote his ideas while simultaneously criticising other potential mayoral candidates for taking part in a “beauty parade” when they should be focusing on the 2015 general election.

Khan has defended Labour’s plans for a “mansion tax” on properties worth more than £2m, although the capital’s inflated property market means that even apartments in some parts of the city can cost that much.

Margaret Hodge, the tough chairwoman of the House of Commons public accounts committee, is also thought to be weighing a mayoral bid, as are Andrew Adonis, the peer and former transport minister. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, said earlier this month that he intended to stand.

While Labour has a surfeit of potential candidates, the widely held view in Tory circles is that retaining the mayoralty in a Labour-inclined city after Johnson leaves will be a huge – perhaps hopeless – task.

David Cameron, the prime minister, has sounded out various possible runners, in the hope that he can find “another Boris” – a candidate with a personality so big that he or she can transcend party boundaries. Approaches were made, so far without success, by Cameron and Johnson to Sebastian Coe, the Olympic gold medallist and former Tory MP, who worked with Jowell in delivering the 2012 London Games.

The Tories are also scouring the world of business and celebrity. Nick Ferrari, the populist presenter of the morning show on LBC radio, is talked about as a possible contender, as is businesswoman and television star Karren Brady. Brady, vice-chairwoman of West Ham United football club and star of The Apprentice television show, has supported the Tories since she was 18 and was picked to introduce chancellor George Osborne at last year’s Tory conference.

If the Tories hold out little hope of retaining the mayoralty in 2016, the Liberal Democrats’ position is far worse. The third party suffered heavy defeats in the capital in May, including losing a flagship council in Kingston.

Meanwhile, the cosmopolitan, outward-looking voters of London seem to be unimpressed by the insurgent UK Independence Party, which advanced across Britain in the May elections but made little headway in the capital. In an embarrassing admission, Ukip deputy chairman Suzanne Evans admitted her party was relatively weak in the capital because Londoners were “cultural, educated and young”.

Whoever eventually contests the 2016 City Hall election, Londoners will expect their new mayor to deliver on new housing, trains, buses and lower crime, where necessary taking the fight to central government.

In a city of global swagger and occasional self-doubt, with extreme wealth adjacent to crushing poverty, the job of London mayor will never be easy, but it seems there will be no shortage of people willing to try.

Blond ambition: first stop Uxbridge on the return to Westminster

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s second term as London mayor does not expire until 2016, but already he is plotting his re-entry to national politics and perhaps his route to 10 Downing Street.

Johnson finally confirmed last month he would seek to return to Westminster as an MP at the 2015 general election, resuming a parliamentary career interrupted in 2008 when he became mayor.

David Cameron, the prime minister, welcomed Johnson’s planned return, declaring: “I’ve always wanted my star players on the pitch.” But Cameron knows his greatest rival for the Tory leadership will soon be sitting feet from him in the House of Commons.

The ebullient London mayor is ranked alongside Theresa May, the no-frills home secretary, as favourite to succeed Cameron as Tory leader and – Johnson hopes – prime minister. The contrast could not be greater.

Nobody doubts Johnson’s ambition, in spite of his typically disarming suggestion that he might only have “a crack” at being prime minister “if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum”. His two terms at City Hall have transformed him from an unfocused and ineffective Tory MP into a vote-winning phenomenon, capable of delivering victory over Labour.

Johnson said in 2012 he had delivered 90 per cent of his promises in his first term, with a record that included falling crime, Tube investment rising and the introduction of so-called “Boris bikes”. Labour retorts his record in helping London’s poorest, including his failure to deliver the homes the capital needs for its swelling population, is far from impressive.

But Johnson’s appeal as a potential leader lies less in his record of delivery in London than the elan with which he has captured the mood of the city – including embodying the optimism around the 2012 Olympics.

Some Londoners may feel Johnson is letting them down by seeking a dual mandate for a year from 2015 to 2016, when he hopes to serve both as an MP and as mayor. Just 37 per cent of voters in a YouGov poll thought it was “reasonable”. In fact, Johnson already juggles several apparently demanding roles: apart from his day job as London mayor he is a Daily Telegraph columnist and is writing a book on Sir Winston Churchill.

Finding a safe Tory seat to fight will not be a problem. Johnson is adored by Conservative activists and a number of ageing MPs in the London area have hinted they could stand aside next year to give him a clear run back to parliament. Last month, the mayor announced he would apply to become the candidate for the safe seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

If Cameron loses the next election, he would be expected to stand down. Johnson would be likely to stand in the subsequent leadership contest, but one friend admits: “He wouldn’t be very good as an opposition leader. It’s five years of hard toil.”

If Cameron wins in 2015, there would be a different kind of risk for Johnson. Cameron might hand him a tough ministerial brief as soon as his mayoral term ended – a poisoned chalice that Johnson might feel duty-bound to accept.

While Cameron and Johnson say their public rivalry belies a cordial private relationship, the mayor knows the prime minister would rather the Tory succession passed to chancellor George Osborne. That is why some Johnson allies suggested Johnson should stay clear of potential bear traps at Westminster, perhaps spending a year or two writing and making money after his mayoral term and then return to the Commons.

But Johnson recognised the problem with that scenario: the longer he stays away from Westminster, the more time his rivals have to prepare their leadership campaigns. He was not prepared to take that risk.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.