Boris Johnson saved by his opponent

Boris Johnson was struggling at the beginning of this week. Traders and residents who’d lost everything in the riots wanted to hear rather more than the usual schtick. Towards the end of his unhappy re-entry visit to Clapham Junction on Tuesday, where he was booed, he pulled it back– and was cheered – but that wasn’t the clip you’d put on the news.

On Monday, with Boris still in Canada, City Hall sources say the situation in the testicle was “complete chaos.” One said: “No-one knew who Boris had delegated his powers to, if anyone.” Boris, in a camper-van in the Rockies, was reduced to communicating on a mobile phone that kept cutting out in the mountainous terrain. It wasn’t just the Mayor who was away. So was his chief of staff, Eddie Lister; his communications director, Guto Harri; his fire commissioner, Ron Dobson; and initially, his police authority chairman, Kit Malthouse (Malthouse was in the UK and got back quickly.)

Boris pulled it back quite a bit more in the second half of the week with his call for an end to police cuts. One of the usual axegrinders claimed they were cuts dreamed up by the Mayor – which is totally untrue; the overall size of the police budget is set by Whitehall. In June, indeed, Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, praised the “fantastic job” done by Boris and Malthouse in fighting Government to keep the cuts to the minimum.

As I’ve said before, I think it facile to make a link between small changes in police numbers – a few percent either way – and crime. Even in public order, the real numbers issue for the Met is not overall force size, but the relatively small number of officers who are fully trained in riot control. But this is politics, not rational debate, and there’s no doubt that Boris has the politics right.  Watch out for the government U-turn in due course!

He has been very visible over recent days, but probably still needs to do more. Riots usually pull politics to the right but there is still a twofold danger for the Mayor: first, that the disorder overshadows his broadly successful record on crime; and second, that any more events like Clapham Junction might expose him as not quite ready for prime-time.

Boris’s greatest asset this week is his main opponent. If he had an awkward 24 hours, it was easily outdone by the nuclear meltdown that was Ken Livingstone’s week. The Kenster started out by seeing the riots as a kind of Tottenham Spring. Even as Croydon burned, he was on Newsnight blaming Boris and calling it a “revolt” against government cuts that mostly haven’t even happened yet.  This is a diagnosis shared, according to the latest poll, by six per cent of the public. Ken has also said: “A lot of these young people, they are criminals, yes, but there’s a disengagement – they feel no-one at the top of society, in government or City Hall, cares about them or speaks for them.”  You can almost feel Boris’s campaign manager sobbing with gratitude, and voters screaming at the TV: “Speak for the victims, not the rioters, you bastard!”

Every bit as bad has been Ken’s attempt to use the death and destruction for the crassest electioneering imaginable. In this week’s New Statesman, he wrote: “In 2008 [under you-know-who], London was widely ranked as the number one city in the world, ahead even of New York. It has taken only three years to bring it to a situation where pictures of London in flames and rioting are being broadcast around the world. Boris Johnson projects the mayor’s role as one obsessed with trivia, a ribbon-cutting celeb-fest – which is why he took so long to return from holiday to London when the riots started. Yet, on his watch, we have seen ordinary Londoners worst hit by soaring public-transport fares, falling police numbers and a rising threat of crime.” It is some achievement to move, in less than 60 words, from “London in flames” to rising bus fares.

On about Wednesday, it having presumably dawned on him quite how badly all this was playing, Ken performed a 180-degree handbrake turn, transforming himself into an instant hammer of the hooded classes. Having contrived to work Margaret Thatcher into his statement, earlier in the week, blaming the Tories for the riots, he suddenly started praising her, saying that we should “look back to the lesson of Mrs Thatcher… she knew what was coming, she recruited more police.”

He’s also started calling for curfews and water cannon – which even the Government opposes. Older readers may remember that only last December, Ken condemned any thought of using water cannon against rioters. “Outside of the North of Ireland we didn’t even see that under Margaret Thatcher,” he stormed. Yes, her again. Does Ken realise what decade he is living in?

The spectacle of a supposedly front-rank politician flailing around like this, saying anything at all which he thinks might get him votes, trying on policies like that looter was trying on trainers, is painful and could perhaps administer the final death-blow to an already faltering campaign. Ken will be the man who made excuses for the rioters, and the man who tried to make political capital out of disaster. Boris (who also seems to have got off slightly lighter than David Cameron, according to another poll) is a lucky, lucky fellow.

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