Alan Watkins: The PM should cosy up to the Lib Dems

The race for London mayor is close and Labour's future, as well as Ken Livingstone's, is hanging on the voters' second preferences
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The Independent Online

It was Michael Heseltine, I think, who first produced the idea of having elected mayors. It was during a broadcast of Question Time when Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister. Lord Heseltine (as he was later to become) said he would not stand against her. A few weeks later, he did precisely that. He failed to become Prime Minister himself, but he did produce – or help to produce – Mr Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London.

In most other European countries, we would have had a consistent system of mayors of large cities; or not, as the case might be. In England and Wales, a system of local option was allowed to come into operation, of whether to have a mayor at all.

As London's first mayor, Mr Livingstone has been a success. This is not to say that Mr Boris Johnson or Mr Brian Paddick might not be an even greater success. That will be for the voters to decide at the beginning of May. But having Mr Livingstone around the place has not proved a disaster: far from it.

Experts on transport and dignitaries from other cities come from far and wide to note the complexities of Mr Livingstone's congestion charge. True, the bendy buses that have been introduced to London's streets may not be so popular. But that, it seems, was not Mr Livingstone's fault. It was the responsibility of some other chap, the new Transport Commissioner.

Mr Livingstone was certainly not to blame for the breakdown in the financing of the repairs to London's transport system. Mr Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, had insisted on a private finance initiative, which has now gone bust. Mr Livingstone had wanted something else, a bond issue, but the Treasury overrode him.

All of a sudden, however, Mr Brown has come to perceive hitherto unappreciated qualities in Mr Livingstone; just as Mr Livingstone has begun to see the good points of Mr Brown. It was not very different from the change in the relationship between Mr Livingstone and Mr Tony Blair.

At the beginning of Mr Blair's period of office, he denounced Mr Livingstone as a likely catastrophe. A parade of ministers, beginning with the luckless (and unrewarded) Mr Frank Dobson, was displayed before us for our curious inspection. Alas, or happily, the people's choice was Ken. Accordingly Mr Blair had to sue for peace, much as Mr Blair was compelled to accept Mr Rhodri Morgan as leader of the Welsh Assembly. Mr Blair and Mr Livingstone came together over the London Olympics. No doubt there were other examples of profitable co-operation between them. But it was this doubtful enterprise that provided the chief illustration for the papers.

Mr Brown is more of a supplicant. Not only was Mr Blair likely to defeat Mr William Hague and Mr Michael Howard, as he duly proceeded to do, but Mr Livingstone was almost equally confident of his position as a leader. Mr Livingstone did not ask anything of Mr Blair, as Mr Blair did not ask anything of Mr Livingstone. Today, Mr Livingstone may not ask for anything very much of Mr Brown, apart from a party machine. But Mr Brown is certainly relying on Mr Livingstone.

What has happened is that Mr David Cameron is candidate to become prime minister and Mr Johnson is candidate to become Mayor of London. They both have a good chance.

Mr Cameron, it may be worth noting, is two years younger than Mr Johnson. For the first time in his spectacular career, Mr Johnson saw someone who was younger than he was not only passing him on the escalator but ending up at the very top of the stairs. I may be wrong, but I would see Boris putting in no more than four years in City Hall and ending up in a Tory Cabinet.

So far, the contest has been notable for the taking of sides. As we know, in all elections, most papers take sides. But this one has seen stronger sides being taken than is usual. Thus the London Evening Standard has pursued Mr Livingstone constantly, with the indefatigable Mr Andrew Gilligan (the hero of the Hutton Inquiry) well to the fore, with what justification I am unable to say.

On the same side, The Spectator, of which Mr Johnson used to be editor, has been a sterling supporter, even though the journal in question is now slightly different in character from what it was like when he was in charge of it. His one disgraceful action in this period was to apologise to the people of Liverpool for a leading article on the city. The editor of a great journal should not be forced to apologise to anybody at the behest of a party politician such as Mr Howard was.

On the other side, The Guardian seems to be taking an obsessive interest in the contest. Hardly a day goes by when there is not a deprecatory reference to Mr Johnson as Lord Snooty or as a character from PG Wodehouse (who was one of the best writers of the 20th century, though that is another subject).

Life has moved on since Mr Douglas Hurd felt the need to make excuses for being an Etonian. The country does not take the same interest in where politicians went to school, if it ever did. Quite why the paper is so interested in this election is mysterious. It is probably because it is the house-journal of the Left. There accordingly seems to be a subsidiary campaign to cast the voters' second preference (as the rules allow) for Mr Livingstone after they have given their first preference to the minor candidate of their choice.

The other principal candidate is Mr Paddick, the former senior policeman. A colleague of mine, Mr Peter Oborne, said on television the other night that, of the main candidates, Mr Paddick was the only one of them who had ever done a proper job. Well, I could see what he meant. But Mr Livingstone was a laboratory technician. Mr Johnson was a perfectly good journalist until he was spoiled by politics. Mr Paddick may have been the most sober and responsible of this galère. But his principal function in the event will, I suspect, be to have his second preferences cast for one of the other two candidates.

The evidence of the opinion polls is that Mr Johnson is ahead on Mr Paddick's second preferences. Of course, it may change; or the information may have been wrong in the first place. But if I were in Mr Brown's place, I should be sucking up to the LibDems as if the survival of the Government depended on it.

It will probably not come to that, because Mr Brown has a perfectly serviceable majority. All the same, governments have a habit of giving up. The Attlee government gave up in 1951. So did the Heath government in 1974. So also did Harold Macmillan in 1963, when he used his medical condition as an excuse to go (for the prognosis was favourable, and he went on to live to the great age of 92). A victory for Mr Johnson is certainly not going to raise the spirits of Mr Brown next month.