Steve Richards: Boris or Ken? There is no doubt who would be better for London and the rest of Britain

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The Independent Online

In my late youth I have become indecisive, suddenly incapable of making up my mind on big things or small. Until recently, decisions came and went and I was always confident like our former Prime Minister about what was "the right thing to do". Now I dither, as our present Prime Minister is accused of doing.

Last Sunday was typical. I got up planning to cycle to Hampstead Heath to run with my fellow Ironmen, deluded athletes one and all. Then I saw a layer of snow outside. Help! Should I cycle or drive to meet my athletic friends? Hold on a second, maybe I should not go at all as it is snowing. Instead I could watch Andrew Marr interview Nick Clegg, with a comforting cup of coffee. No, I have heard enough about Clegg and his 30 women. I will join the Ironmen on that blasted heath, but to drive or cycle? I did not know which move was the right thing to do. Ah, decisions. Excuse the cathartic introduction, but I am being self-indulgent for a purpose. Friends and colleagues tell me they are similarly undecided as to who they should vote for in London's mayoral contest.

Normally they know for sure what to do in an election, but in their late youth they are suddenly indecisive: Ken or Boris? Help! Yet on this, in my haze of youthful indecision, I am absolutely clear what would be best for London and therefore the rest of the country. I have no doubts at all. I know I am right.

In order to show the ditherers what I mean, a bit of context is required. There is a need to go back to the beginning. The fact that Ken Livingstone is mayor at all is an extraordinary feat. At the height of its power New Labour was ready to do anything to stop him. This was at a time when the New Labour machine had wiped out the Conservatives. All of them, Blair, Brown, Campbell, Mandelson, were up for destroying Livingstone as well.

Livingstone ran rings around them, outmanoeuvring them at every stage, calmly striding towards the prize that they were determined he would not get. Equally remarkably, within a few years his ardent antagonists had changed their minds. They calculated that it would be to their advantage to invite the vote-winning Livingstone back into the Labour party. At the very least, his route to power shows that Livingstone possesses an unusual amount of political guile, a much needed quality to make anything of the mayoral post.

This is the other element of required context. Once more, we need to go back to the beginning. The creation of the London mayor was a classic example of a New Labour fudge.

For admirable reasons, it wanted to introduce a mayor, but typically it was frightened of the implications, in the same way that it wanted to ban fox hunting without banning it and sought to remove hereditary peers, but not all of them. In this case, it wanted a mayor, but without many powers.

Livingstone has a genius for making the most of limited powers. Over time, he has been given some more levers to pull, but that is because he was making the most of the few he had been given in the first place. His army of critics are wrong to argue that he has arrogantly abused sweeping powers. Instead, he has honed in on the restricted powers and made the most of them.

Early on, he had no power over the restructuring of the underground, although it is clear that his proposals were more sensible than those imposed on him by Gordon Brown. Still he has no direct tax-raising powers. Yet from very little he has dared to introduce a congestion charge, making an impact in the chaos of road -works currently deforming London and raising cash for buses. The oyster card for paying fares, late-night running of tubes on New Year's Eve, night buses, these initiatives do not come about by magic. They are the consequences of political will. All of them enhance the quality of life in a city that is nightmarishly difficult to govern, not least when so many other institutions and bodies are doing a lot of the governing.

The route taken by Boris Johnson towards the Conservative candidacy is almost the exact opposite. The leadership asked him to stand, having failed in their search for someone else to do it, and he agonised over the decision for some time. I am a Boris fan and do not buy the idea that he is merely a comic buffoon. Anyone who leaves journalism for politics shows a seriousness of purpose and a hint of courage, more so in his case given that he had a dream repertoire as columnist, pundit and star of every TV show. He plays it for laughs, but I have no doubt that he would take the role of mayor seriously. If he just wanted to be the clown of British politics, he would have stayed with the less demanding and better paid role he had in the media.

But that does not mean he is remotely qualified to be mayor. The sequence in which he makes his pitch is wrong. To even claim qualification, Johnson should have shown an interest in the politics of London for years, examining closely what can and cannot be done with the powers available to him. He should have shown also a greater interest in administration, of getting things done.

Would Johnson have had the temperament, inclination and administrative skills to introduce the oyster card? Ideologically and by temperament he would be inclined to let go of the levers: "You chaps get on with it and see what you come up with". London is chaotic enough already without a mayor having an uncertain relationship with the levers available to him.

I am not surprised the Greens have endorsed Livingstone as their favoured alternative candidate. When he says he will take action on the environment he will do it. When he pledges new cycling routes through London they will happen. There might be some background craziness amidst the implementation, but he will intervene to get things done. I read the relentless criticisms and cannot get worked up by any of them.

The Channel Four documentary on Livingstone was comically one-sided and displayed a wilfully naive misunderstanding of how politics works. The daily outpourings from the Evening Standard are not as damning if you read the qualifying paragraphs that are buried well below the headlines.

The unelected tormentors have had their moments of glory but should not be allowed to determine the outcome of an election. After much dithering last Sunday I drove to go running with my fellow Ironmen but wonder still whether I should have cycled or would have found more pleasure sitting indoors away from the snow watching Nick Clegg. The choice in London is much easier.

It is between a flawed figure who makes much of an ill-defined post in a complex, overcrowded city and someone who gave the job no thought until the candidacy was thrust upon him. On this at least there is no excuse for indecision.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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