Re-elect Boris – then give him more powers

Those English cities that are voting in referendums on Thursday on whether to have directly elected mayors should look to London to see the benefits. The creation of the office of mayor 12 years ago has invigorated political life in the capital. It has given the city a high-profile champion, as well as a greater say in its own affairs. It has proved the adage that the closer power is to the people, the keener will be the people’s interest in politics. The current mayoral campaign has been a vibrant, cut-and-thrust affair, playing to packed hustings and attracting intense media interest.

Much of this is attributable to the personality of Boris Johnson, the Conservative candidate. He not only possesses that rare gift of being able to cheer us all up, but is also a unifying figure. His appeal to disaffected Labour voters shows that clearly enough. Yet he is unmistakably a Tory – indeed, he is one of the few senior Conservative figures prepared to make the moral case for lower taxes. The City of London has never had a more committed cheerleader and his eagerness to challenge the EU’s repeated attempts to clip London’s wings has been refreshing.

Mr Johnson has also shown himself to be a sure-footed administrator during his first term. In straitened times he won a good transport settlement, including guaranteed funding for the Crossrail project linking Heathrow Airport with Canary Wharf. He scrapped the dangerously anti-business western extension of the congestion charge zone, introduced his blue bikes, took bendy buses off the roads and put Routemasters back on them. He has opened up a debate on London’s desperate need for greater airport capacity, setting his sights high with his plans for a new third airport in the Thames Estuary. He was quick to take to task Heathrow’s operators when a snowstorm closed the airport (learning, perhaps, from one of his early mistakes when he failed to send London’s buses out after a snowfall and the capital ground to a halt as a consequence).

On policing, his other main responsibility, he eased Sir Ian Blair out of the commissioner’s office in Scotland Yard at the very earliest opportunity – on the day he took over the chairmanship of the Metropolitan Police Authority. This was a welcome move that ended an era of drift, politicisation and political correctness in the force. Mr Johnson has demonstrated similar boldness in the way he has been prepared to take on his own Government, often quite aggressively.

However, the truth about this election is that had Mr Johnson achieved little, he would still have been a far more attractive candidate than his main challenger. Labour’s Ken Livingstone has fought a wretched and dishonest campaign. Where Mr Johnson is by nature a unifier, Mr Livingstone is by nature divisive. His modus operandi is cynically to cultivate sectional and ethnic interests, not to speak for the whole of the community. An ugly strain of anti-Semitism has underpinned his campaign, while his loose relationship with the truth has been shocking in a man seeking public office. Even many staunch Labour supporters will find it difficult to support him when the polling stations open. It is instructive that the closing stages of the campaign have seen Labour removing Mr Livingstone’s name from its election literature. If Labour were to win tomorrow’s vote, it would be despite Mr Livingstone, not because of him.

The office of mayor in London is now well enough established to allow a serious debate to take place on an extension of powers. The holder is responsible for strategic policies on transport, policing, planning and development, housing, economic development and regeneration, culture and environmental issues. This is an important but limited portfolio. Surely the time has come to invest the mayor’s office with more responsibilities, notably for education and health. It is difficult to argue that the government of London should have more limited powers than the government of Wales.

As for Thursday’s election, a victory for Mr Johnson would be a tonic for London and the country. He has certainly earned the right to a second term and his popularity is all the more noteworthy given the slump in the fortunes of the Conservatives nationally. But this contest is about the man, not the party – it is about character and judgment. That is why the choice facing Londoners tomorrow is such a stark one. If Mr Livingstone were to return to City Hall, the resulting sense of depression would, we suspect, extend far beyond the capital.