If you’ve never seen London’s mayor Boris Johnson in full flight you must watch his encounter with Newsnight frontman Jeremy Paxman on BBC2 television last night. Even if you’re familiar with Johnson’s studied eccentricity and missed it, their extraordinary verbal fisticuffs is must-see viewing.
Although Labour leads nationally in opinion polls, the party’s candidate Ken Livingstone is going to have his work cut out beating the Tory blond bombshell at the mayoral election next May.
There’s a lot wrong with London – witness the recent riots – and Livingstone will find fertile ground in challenging Johnson over soaring public transport fares.
It is also easy to attack Johnson for his privileged background every time he defends the capital’s place in global financial markets.
But in an age of celebrity, Johnson ticks a lot of boxes. He's an appealing one-off. I won’t say he’s a shoo-in. The mayor is gaffe-prone. A sex scandal would do immense damage if his wife were to decide her man had been given enough rope.
With the prize a second term as London’s mayor, I doubt if Johnson would be so foolish to trash his political career. For all his protestations to the opposite, he remains the only obvious challenger to George Osborne when David Cameron decides to quit No. 10.
The prime minister is so keen to see Johnson returned, he will put up with almost any statements by the mayor to distance himself from the unpopular Tories.
The prime minister would claim a Johnson victory a vote for his party, as would Labour leader Ed Miliband if Livingstone were to win.
Having Johnson back in City Hall would keep him out of Cameron’s hair for another four years. Defeat and the Tory faithful would demand Johnson be found a safe seat in the Commons where he could snipe at his leader from the backbenches.
It’s almost as important for Miliband that Livingstone brings home the bacon. He would claim it a vindication of the direction he is taking the Labour party. Of course, the reverse is true.
If defeated, Livingstone, as he did when he was unseated by Johnstone, would blame the unpopularity of his party for losing him the London election. If the margin of loss were big enough, there might be pressure to drop Miliband before it was too late.