Here, at last, was an election that they simply could not lose

Click to follow
"WE'RE THE victims of success" pleaded Bob Neill, the chairman for the Conservative Mayoral Candidate hustings, after a genteel slow handclap had bought him scurrying to the podium microphone.

"You wish", I thought, but Mr Neill was right - battered loyalists had spotted that this was an election the Tories simply couldn't lose, and they had turned out to enjoy it in numbers large enough to boost their morale even further.

It was, said all four speakers, voices thick with democratic pride, the biggest and most open political selection process ever held.

The activists might have come for the guaranteed thrill of victory but the press had come to see whether Mr Norris and Lord Archer would talk to each other, after the former had declared he wouldn't support the latter "alive or dead".

This was actually a compliment; as much of a recognition, in its way, as Mrs Thatcher's endorsement of Jeffrey's "unquenchable enthusiasm".

God knows they've tried to quench it, but the blaze can't be put out. As Mr Norris's insult implies, even a stake through the heart probably wouldn't stop him. He'd still be out there, as his glossy pamphlet illustrated, being blessed by swamis in Neasden, grinning at Pearly Kings and leaping vigorously off the back of Routemaster buses.

It looked like an Archer crowd - so many white-haired voters that the hall had the appearance of a freshly ploughed field after a light snowfall. And, as the first of the serious contenders to the microphone, he gave them exactly what they wanted - plenty of Labour-bashing rhetoric on transport, opposition to congestion charging, support for the police.

Mr Norris's modest pamphlet had announced that he had "a proven track record". Lord Archer knows that his track record is as alarming as an underfunded stretch of the East Coast line - shifting clinker, wonky sleepers and some alarming kinks in the rails.

But this, he suggested brazenly, was just another reason to vote for him. Yes, the ride might be bouncy, but wouldn't it be exciting?

A great city needed the global profile and flamboyance only he could bring it. In what must surely be a personal best, in a distinguished career of peerless self-regard, he effectively promised that he could put London on the map. Mr Norris came back strongly, stating absolutely identical views, and then declaring piously that the contest should be about policies rather than personalities.

Bob Blackman, former leader of Brent Council, had neither, so seemed unlikely to trouble the front-runners. "I will not accept the mediocre" he declared, and the electorate decided likewise.

Andrew Boff, a crop-haired product of the Thatcherjugend, fared rather better in a speech that unusually combined the political philosophies of Jim Davidson (much jocular civic bigotry about non-Londoners) and Keith Joseph. But his vehemence exceeded his articulacy once too often and it was the favourites who took the race.

Mr Norris, incidentally, risked eye contact with Lord Archer far more often than the other way round, with the insultee remaining stonily indifferent to the chummy overtures of the insulter.

Lord Archer might have promised to support whoever was chosen "100 per cent" after the final vote, but last night at least he wasn't giving an inch to Mr Norris.