Tony Travers: A smile and dash of Blairism is secret of Mayor's success

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The past year has seen a radical change in the world economic order and, in an odd parallel, the emergence of Boris Johnson as a national political contender.

When Ken Livingstone lost the London mayoral race, he handed over a fast-growing city that was the centre of a particular form of globalised financial system.

Today, Boris Johnson is mayor of a city within a country whose economic future is uncertain. He has also recently signalled that being mayor of the capital is but a stepping-stone to a more exalted political position – prime minister.

Ahead of the May 2008 election, his enemies launched exaggerated attacks on Johnson. Having been a lovably eccentric journalist, TV personality and MP, he was suddenly accused of being a monstrous racist and a Thatcherite extremist, too incompetent to run the government of a major city. His candidacy was portrayed as a bad joke.

In the event, he won and won well. In classic British mode, voters thought it was "time for a change". Boris proved popular and capable of tapping a deep well of outer-London sentiment that felt itself ignored by Ken and Labour. The "revenge of the suburbs" is a factor Gordon Brown may well come to worry about during the next 12 months.

Johnson's opponents had created such low and inaccurate expectations of the new mayor that he was in a good position to appear reasonably successful.

True, there were some awkward moments early in his tenure when deputy mayors came and went, creating an impression of chaos. But even Barack Obama has faced embarrassing resignations from his administration. The City Hall machine now appears settled.

Comparisons with Ken Livingstone's eight years as mayor are inevitable. Whereas Livingstone presided over a regime that was tight and focussed, Boris's administration is more home-made. By all accounts, Johnson himself directs what happens and decides the direction of policy. The result is less coherent and predictable than under his predecessor.

Some of his initiatives have been Blairite, leaning against his opponents' expectations, and, indeed, his own party's general policy. For example, he has supported the London Living Wage, opened up a debate about allowing "irregular" migrants to earn citizenship, and supported Obama for president.

Less popular with the left and the Greens has been his abandoning the western extension of the congestion charge, his weaker "affordable housing" targets, and the removal of the police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair. The recession has reduced Johnson's room for manoeuvre. On the other hand, he manages to convey a sense of jolliness and fun that his predecessor never managed. He doesn't really do "mean". On occasion, however, there is visible tension between the jolly Boris and the more serious Mayor Johnson. Also, like Livingstone, he can appear a bit fed-up when MPs or London Assembly members try to hold him to account. By signalling, in an interview with London's Evening Standard last week, his interest in becoming prime minister, Johnson risks transmitting a message to Londoners that he is not fully committed to them. After a single year in power, such a signal would not be ideal. But his sights may be shifting across the Thames. His first year in City Hall has probably helped open up a possible route to Downing Street. Given where he was during last year's mayoral campaign, this must represent some kind of success.

Tony Travers is director of LSE London, a research centre at the London School of Economics

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