Even when Ken Livingstone made a good gag, Boris Johnson managed to trump him. In the end, even the incumbent had to smile.
The Blond Bombshell is dismissed as "a joke" by his Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents in the race to be Mayor of London. But at a lively hustings at Reuters in Canary Wharf yesterday, Mr Johnson did both funny and serious.
Mr Livingstone tailored his message to a largely City audience by posing as a champion of globalisation and free trade, a far cry from his left-wing past. The way to prevent a US recession spreading to Britain was more trade with China and India, he declared. Boris was a little more hazy on policy but won the vote on a show of hands.
Mr Livingstone said that, after eight years as Mayor, he had the track record to take London forward. In contrast, all the Tory candidate Mr Johnson had done was to edit a magazine. "Much as I love [him] and find Boris very entertaining," he said, "running The Spectator was a relatively easy and undemanding job – after the difficult decision about where to go for lunch with the staff."
"Not that easy," Mr Johnson interjected. "I showed leadership!" He got a bigger laugh than Mr Livingstone.
Mr Johnson dodged Mr Livingstone's charge that London would be run by "a comedian and seven unknowns" if he became Mayor. He refused to name what he called "the fantastic and formidable team" of advisers who would keep him on the right track if he won.
But Mr Johnson did announce that Bob Diamond, the president of Barclays Bank, would help him set up a Mayor's Fund to encourage business to donate to community projects in deprived areas.
Mr Diamond earned £6.8m last year but his total package was estimated at more than £21m when shares and bonuses were included.
Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate and former senior Metropolitan Police officer, tried to do funny and serious but his jokes fell flat. He styled himself as "the serious alternative" to Mr Livingstone with "a sense of humour". But there was silence after he accused Mr Livingstone of supporting the campaign for 24-hour drinking by personal example.
Mr Paddick drew groans of frustration from the audience when he refused to advise his supporters how to use the second preference vote they are allowed in the 1 May contest. Mr Livingstone wooed Liberal Democrat supporters by saying he was "much closer politically" to Mr Paddick but then called him "a complete fool" by refusing to urge his backers to use their second vote.
Mr Johnson said he would not dodge the "second vote" question but then did. He quipped that he would offer Mr Livingstone a job as an adviser "in circumstances yet to be spelt out in detail".
When the candidates were asked how the result would affect national politics, Mr Livingstone got it right. If their party won, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron would claim it was on course for general election victory, he said. If it lost, the contest would have no relevance because it was all about personalities. Yesterday, it was a personality contest and there was only one winner.