Boris Johnson is preparing to spend up to £1m on his battle to oust Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London.
The journalist and maverick MP is planning to pour more than £500,000 into his fight for the keys to the capital's City Hall even before the campaign opens in earnest on 18 March, with allies insisting that he has a real chance of pushing one of Labour's highest profile figures from office.
Mr Johnson has already pulled in more than £150,000 in donations since September, when his position as the Conservative candidate for the job was confirmed, and senior sources in his campaign say that more cash will roll in.
One source said: "Money is no problem ... he will spend about £500,000 before the campaign and about £500,000 during it."
Tomorrow Mr Johnson will face his first televised clash with Mr Livingstone and the Liberal Democrat candidate, the former senior Metropolitan Police officer Brian Paddick.
Mr Johnson's allies expect to secure support from the Tory deputy chairman, Lord Ashcroft, to help bankroll his campaign. The peer has already frightened Labour MPs by pouring funding into Conservative target seats to boost campaigning, and his backing would represent a major boost for Mr Johnson.
His team are also holding talks with David Cameron's senior lieutenants to ensure that the party's national campaigning firepower and its telephone canvassing operation are also swung behind their candidate.
Allies of Mr Johnson say it would be a "disaster" for Mr Cameron if he failed to win, but acknowledge that he must retain clear water between himself and the Tory leader to maximise his anti-establishment credentials and minimise the damage to the party if his campaign is unsuccessful.
The Australian election guru Lynton Crosby, who masterminded the Tories' 2005 general election campaign, is starting work for Mr Johnson.
The mayoral race is the most significant single test of public opinion before the next general election, which could be as far away as 2010.
Labour will also pour resources into the drive to keep Mr Livingstone in office, and his campaign is one of their top priorities.
Mr Livingstone is due to make a series of announcements about third-term policies within weeks. He will stress his record securing the Crossrail project, increasing bus travellers and boosting police numbers in London, as well as his role in bringing the Olympics to London in 2012. He will also campaign on tackling climate change, as well as his plan to build £50,000 affordable homes by 2011.
Mr Paddick, whose campaign is expected to be launched next week, is also hoping to make a strong bid for the job to boost the fortunes of his party under its new leader Nick Clegg.
Under election rules, mayoral candidates can spend a maximum of £420,000 after the election formally opens. But there is no cap on expenditure before that date, and all three major contenders are already swinging into a full-time push for votes even though polling day is still five months away.
Mr Johnson has a full-time campaign team of 20 working from offices at County Hall, the former home of the Greater London Council. Mr Livingstone's campaign will be run from Labour's Westminster headquarters, highlighting the importance the party puts on retaining its powerbase in the capital. One Labour source said: "It's a key priority for 2008 and resources and support will reflect that."
Mr Johnson is planning to capitalise on his reputation as a figure outside the Tory mainstream to reinforce his appeal in the clash of celebrity politicians for the Mayor's job. He is thought to be planning to unveil a string of high profile advisers during the coming weeks to counter his image as gaffe-prone.
But he is expected to focus on the message that he will make London fun, as well as attempting to peel away Labour's support in the London suburbs by branding Mr Livingstone a "zone-one mayor".
Leading candidates for Mayor
Personality: Official Labour candidate, having being readmitted after standing against his party in 2000.
Campaign: Will be run from Labour HQ in Westminster. Has hired Fallon advertisers to advise campaign. Re-election seen as top Labour priority.
Policies: Good record on congestion charge, Olympics, Crossrail, more police and buses. Backs extended congestion charge and affordable homes.
Personality: Although bumbling and gaffe-prone, the Tory candidate is a respected writer and broadcaster.
Campaign: Twenty full-time staff at County Hall. Has declared over £150,000 in donations and spending may reach £1m. Australian election guru Lynton Crosby joins team this week.
Policies: Emphasises personal security and tackling knife crime, more family homes, green issues and health inequalities.
Personality: The former Met Police deputy assistant commissioner and Britain's highest-ranking openly gay police officer.
Campaign: Is already using the slogan "serious about London". Has assembled a 10-strong campaign team.
Policies: Will campaign on crime, transport and housing. Will argue London has been let down by professional politicians and that his police career shows his record of delivering results.Reuse content