Leading Article: The race for London's mayor has descended into farce

THE PANTO season may be approaching but that is no excuse for the farcical state into which the race to become first mayor of London is descending. The decision by the leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party to enter the fray - on behalf of his ginger tom-cat - should be a light-hearted episode in an otherwise serious contest between candidates of the highest calibre for a powerful job. The Loony candidate is fast emerging, however, as one of the more credible of the runners, and his entry reminds us that this race evokes feelings of despair as well as amusement.

Yesterday we were treated to a walk-on role for the Data Protection Registrar, of all people, who is following up complaints from Labour Party members that they have been receiving unsolicited mail from the Frank Dobson campaign. Perhaps the fact that Mr Dobson's staff saw fit to send one of their letters to a certain Mr Ken Livingstone asking for his support tells us all we need to know about that shambolic campaign. We can certainly look forward to more black comedy as the Labour leadership fastens upon more and more absurd ploys to stop Mr Livingstone running, which serve only to improve his standing. Precisely why the notion that all the candidates should simply compete on an equal basis seems so alien to Millbank remains a mystery. In any case we can still enjoy the is-she-ain't-she-gonna-run? routines of Glenda Jackson, who hasn't been in anything quite this funny since she worked with Morecambe and Wise.

Not that the Tories have performed any better, offering a contest between Steven Norris and Jeffrey Archer, a man from the past versus a man with a past - as Susan Kramer, the worthy Liberal Democrat candidate, put it.

But where are the big beasts of the London political jungle? Why did Michael Portillo and Peter Mandelson not think it worthy of their talents, even when they were in the political wilderness? Where is Simon Hughes? Where, even, is Richard Branson? The job of mayor of London does not deserve to be fixed; nor does the contest deserve to be a farce.

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