Welcome to Britain. The day I arrived, just as London’s mayor officially declared the city open for the Olympic Games, there were two-hour lines to pass through border controls at Heathrow, and that was just for us lucky British passport holders. Earlier that morning, police had been forced to intervene to deal with unrest after a crowd of frustrated arriving passengers had first begun giving airport officials what the Brits call some “verbal,” and then subsequently formed a flying wedge to storm past Immigration without showing their documents. According to a report in the Times of London, “counter-terrorism officers tried to intercept the mob, but succeeded in stopping only about twelve of them.” Alan Fitzpatrick, a London hotelier returning from Detroit, described how some of his fellow travelers made “a dash for it, pushing police, airport security, and Border Agency staff aside in the rush.” He added: “It was an incredible sight. There were scuffles, people being knocked to the ground, then a resignation from the powers that be, who stepped aside to let the crowd through.” As a result of this incident, Theresa May, the U.K. home secretary, was forced to concede that there had been “issues” following her decision to reduce manpower at airports while simultaneously reintroducing full passport checks for all passengers following the “qualified success” of an experiment to relax controls. (The situation was not helped by the news that a quota system was in place at Heathrow and other British airports. According to John Vine, the independent chief inspector of the U.K. Border Agency, “White passengers on flights coming in from certain destinations were detained purely to avoid discrimination complaints where there was an intention to question black passengers.”) Mrs. May later blamed the chaotic scenes at Heathrow on “a number of factors, including incorrect flight manifests or early or late planes, which result in bunching.”
Once released into the land of my birth, I joined another impressive-looking line to buy a ticket (up 15 percent from the same time last year) to take the Underground into central London—not an experience for the faint-hearted. Nothing announces your immersion into today’s Britain quite like the experience of swaying precariously through a deep tunnel while standing wedged over your luggage in a dank, fetid, metal tube, an ordeal punctuated by the inevitable “signal failures” and other technical delays en route. At least the system was operating the day I arrived. The public-transport unions have threatened widespread “industrial action” (rather the opposite of what it promises) in the months ahead over plans to modernize their service. Back topside, central London’s skyline appears to be becoming that of a banana republic, with a forest of half-finished or, in some cases, abandoned surrealist skyscrapers looming over the familiar rows of Victorian terraced houses. By and large, the streets are a chaos of repeated excavation, messy and spectacularly congested. Just to add to the welcome, Britain’s Met Office simultaneously issued both flood and drought warnings, explaining that, after two “exceptionally dry” years, motorists and pedestrians could expect “precipitation- and temperature-related challenges” in what was to become the worst early spring in recorded history. On May 7, a public holiday traditionally associated with flower shows and trips to the beach, it snowed in much of central and northern England.
I mention all of this not to rehearse the many and varied charms of London life, but to give some grassroots context to the city’s hotly contested mayoral election, held on May 3. While the incumbent Boris Johnson (Conservative) and his challenger and predecessor Ken Livingstone (Labour) were rightly keen to talk about financial regulation, police reform, and human rights, many Londoners may have wondered if their mayor cared as much about such mundane things as interminable transport delays and unregulated roadworks that have turned almost every central London street into a builder’s yard. The famously tousle-haired Johnson, 47, an Old Etonian, at least showed his ability during the campaign to talk like a member of the working classes. On a live BBC TV news transmission on April 30, the mayor was asked to comment on reports that he had had meetings with the Murdoch family during the recent, and continuing, police inquiry into the Murdochs’ News International group. Johnson characterized the reports as “f-cking bullsh-t.” As one commentator admiringly noted, “He’s a posh boy with the common touch. It’s the sort of thing a market trader or a cabbie might say. It is not the sort of thing one expects a politician to tell the BBC.” Throughout the campaign, Johnson skillfully balanced what’s widely thought to be a healthy ego and sense of mission with his general air of having emerged from the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse story. It would be fair to say he evokes a certain popular affection not naturally associated with leading members of the Tory Party. “I think you’re gorgeous.” “Why aren’t you Prime Minister?” “Will you marry me?” Those were some of the tougher questions put to Johnson by an all-female audience shortly before the election. For a 19-year-old admirer named Lewis Jolly, meanwhile, Boris-mania shifted up a gear. Announcing that he thought the London mayor “super-cool,” Mr. Jolly, a trainee chef, arranged to have his hero’s face tattooed onto his upper thigh. Several tabloids chose to run an arresting front-page close-up of the image in their editions immediately before the election. Among other personal data, Mr. Jolly volunteered the information that he currently “doesn’t have a girlfriend.” “He should probably get used to that,” the Times archly noted.
It would be reasonable to say that Livingstone, 66, perhaps fails to generate the same sense of personal abandon among his supporters, although in the course of a 40-year political career he’s had his moments. Back in April 1979, I watched several apparently respectable female attendees at a Labour general-election meeting rise as one from their seats, to carry on like randy aunties at a Tom Jones concert the moment Livingstone began his anti-Thatcher, Up the Workers routine. Several of the ladies in question wore T-shirts customized with slogans announcing how enthusiastically they would respond to any romantic overtures Livingstone might care to make them. As has often been noted, he’s a strange hybrid—an impeccably left-wing agitator never happier than when haranguing a street audience through a megaphone about the need for a multicultural society, yet one who openly sneers at the “raging homosexuals” and “rich Jews” among his political opponents. Nor have his domestic arrangements always clung to the traditional monogamous ideal. Livingstone has five children from three women, one of whom he subsequently married. According to a British newspaper report of April 2008, “All the kids meet up for Sunday lunch, while Ken’s former lovers take it in turns to cook.” Again somewhat belying his image as a hair-shirt socialist, Livingstone long worked as a gourmet-food writer for London’s Evening Standard newspaper and various magazines. He’s an environmentalist, a conspiracymonger, a businessman, and a lover of newts. In 2004, he was quoted by the Guardian as saying, “I just long for the day I wake up and find that the Saudi royal family are strung from lamp-posts and they’ve got a proper government that respects the people of Saudi Arabia.” Having once called President George W. Bush a war criminal and “the greatest threat to life on this planet,” in May 2011 Livingstone went on to announce he was “appalled” that Osama bin Laden had been shot dead by U.S. Special Forces “in his pyjamas” and “in front of his kid.” Later that year, the candidate who once denounced “rich Tory bastards” for their alleged tax avoidance schemes was accused of some creative accountancy of his own. Records at Companies House in London showed that Livingstone had paid money earned from writing, making speeches, and broadcasting into a company named Silveta, of which he is a director and his current wife the secretary. Critics claimed that by directing earnings into a limited company, Livingstone was liable for corporation tax of 20 percent rather than income tax of up to 50 percent. On the campaign trail, Livingstone dismissed these allegations as “a distraction.” By the time the polls opened on May 3, even some senior officials of the London Labour Party appeared to be of two minds about their candidate. Speaking on radio, Tom Watson, the party’s deputy chairman, offered only a muted endorsement. “I’m being totally candid with you,” he said. “I’m saying to you, those Labour voters who are thinking of going to vote for Boris Johnson, don’t do it. Hold your nose, and vote for Ken.”
So the choice of mayor before the citizens of London was even more than usually about the candidates’ personalities, and rather less about their policies. According to the Times, Livingstone had forfeited his right to elected office by his “nasty habit of playing one set of [voters] off against another.” His “insulting remarks about Jews” and his “tendency to associate with radical clerics of decidedly dubious views” contributed to a widespread view that “his time has gone.” His opponent’s campaign was seemingly as much about not being Ken Livingstone as it was about articulating a vision for London just two months before the Olympics came to town.
If Johnson was helped by the personal vagaries and retro-politics of his opponent, he was also hurt by the traditional midterm unpopularity of the ruling national government. Just a week before the election, it was revealed that Britain was officially back in recession—a “double-dip” recession, at that—following two successive quarters of economic contraction. Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to admit that the figures were “very, very disappointing.” “There is no complacency at all in this government in dealing with what is a very tough situation, which frankly has just got tougher,” he told the House of Commons on April 25. Boris Johnson’s relationship with the Conservative Party high command has long had its ups and downs, but when Cameron appeared on the London campaign trail it became almost a pas de deux, with the beaming PM constantly scuttling up to throw his arm around his candidate’s shoulders, and Johnson himself hunching down and generally displaying the body language and overall air of enthusiasm of a man facing the firing squad.
Bizarrely, the burning issue for both Johnson and Livingstone on the day before the election wasn’t the national economy, or the environment, or even the relentless strike threats by London’s transport unions. It wasn’t police reform, or the regulation of City Hall’s own bureaucracy, nor was it the absurdly expensive and intrusive security arrangements for the coming Olympics, which among other things involved the placing of antiaircraft missiles on certain of the city’s rooftops, and the appearance of the Royal Navy’s largest warship, the 22,000-ton HMS Ocean, in the middle of the Thames.
Rather, it was bicycles.
Johnson, the cycling mayor, managed to provoke a backlash among two-wheeled voters by informing a packed meeting that London’s cyclists are typically bedraggled, Lycra-clad characters who jump red lights and thus “contribute to their own downfall.” What’s more, they apparently consider themselves “morally superior.” Amid growing boos, Johnson went on to note, “I may not conform to your idea of a stereotypical cyclist”—before adding, fairly enough, “I do not have whippet-thin brown legs or dreadlocks.” The mayor’s apparent own goal was enough to give Livingstone his opening. Not only would he put the safety of cyclists at the heart of transport policy, he told the meeting, he also promised to introduce daily smog reports to warn Londoners when it was unsafe, or in extreme cases forbidden, to take to the streets. The idea of imposing further government controls on the movements of citizens was greeted by loud and sustained applause. Livingstone, who arrived at and left the meeting in a chauffeured car, then quoted figures showing that 4,000 Londoners per year are killed by poor air quality. “It is a death toll that is bigger than 9/11. This has to be an absolute priority for the next term.” In a surprising outcome to the day, the London Cycling Campaign promptly issued a press release saying that Johnson’s had been a “weird performance,” while Livingstone, by contrast, had shown “real vision” by prioritizing cyclists over drivers in all future transport modeling.
The polling day itself featured a full set of characteristically modern western-democratic electoral quirks, including an abysmally low turnout (38.1 percent) and the apparent inability to count accurately large numbers of boxes full of ballot papers. By midday on May 4, what was supposed to be an early result—“Boris Heads for Victory!” blared the Evening Standard at lunchtime—had descended into something close to hanging-chad limbo. Waiting reporters were told that “crates of lost votes” had been discovered “stuffed in a corner” at a suburban polling station, and that “several hundred papers had been shredded by accident” and were being taped together by hand. In an age of such bewildering technological change, it may almost be reassuring that Britain’s core electoral process remains essentially unchanged from Dickens’ day. When all the figures were successfully added up, Johnson was found to have won by a margin of 51.5 percent to Livingstone’s 48.5 percent. The Liberal Democrat candidate was pushed into fourth place by the representative of the Green Party. According to exit polls conducted by the Evening Standard, “In this left-leaning city, from Barnet to Bromley, Hillingdon to Havering, it was astonishing to discover how many people decided they ‘couldn’t vote for Ken’ and said that ‘Labour had fielded the wrong candidate.’” Mr. Livingstone emerged to say, “This is the defeat I most regret,” and promised to retire from politics. It is feared he is writing another book.
In the larger picture, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats respectively lost more than 400 and 300 seats in voting to elect councils throughout Britain, while Labour made major inroads in even the relatively affluent south of England. Johnson’s victory, albeit narrow, defied the odds and proved that an Etonian bon viveur with a public image often akin to that of Bertie Wooster could defeat a socialist candidate in a city where Labour was 22 percent ahead in the early opinion polls. Perhaps no other politician since Winston Churchill has so superbly embodied that peculiar British genius for marrying sophistication with buffoonery. One political commentator described Johnson’s reelection in biblical terms. “He is now seen as not only capable of walking on water, but walking on stormy water,” said Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics. Professor Travers noted that Johnson’s victory had nothing to do with the Conservative Party at the national level, but was “all about the power of Brand Boris.” The professor said that polling throughout the campaign had repeatedly picked up on the mayor’s charisma. “On the dinner party test—who would you like to invite—he is way ahead of other politicians, including David Cameron.” That Johnson won on a dark day for his party makes him a “potentially serious and awkward threat for the Conservative leadership,” Travers added. Translating these remarks into tabloid form, the Labour-fanatic Daily Mirror editorialized, “Boot out Bozo PM and Give the Job to BoJo!”
Johnson himself brushed aside claims that victory in London set him up for an inevitable return to Parliament as an MP, followed by a battle for the leadership of the Conservative Party. “I will serve out my term in full,” he announced, in a reinaugural speech not notable for the modesty of its vision. “I make a solemn vow to Londoners to lead them out of recession, bring down crime, and deliver the growth, investment, and opportunity that this city so desperately needs. Keeping that promise cannot be combined with any other political capacity.” (Surveying this agenda, cynics were left to wonder what exactly Johnson saw as the achievements of his first term in office.) Seeming to renege on his promise to leave public life, Livingstone soon reemerged to offer an uncompromisingly grim forecast of the times ahead: “Today’s kids will be the first group of Englishmen ever to face a future that will be harder than that of their parents”—an augury that perhaps failed to consider the generation of Britons born from around 1885 to 1900.
In the end, Johnson probably won reelection because enough Labour voters did not like their candidate and found the incumbent mayor to be an acceptable alternative. Labour’s election successes elsewhere in Britain sent David Cameron’s coalition government a clear message that the public’s tolerance for relentlessly dire warnings of ever-worsening austerity and spending cuts is limited. (Much the same mood of popular impatience has seen the governments of Spain, Italy, Ireland, Finland, the Netherlands, Rumania, and France fall since November 2011, while at this writing Greece continues to improvise her passage through the continuing eurozone crisis.) For Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, it was a humiliating election; among the party’s losses throughout Britain was that of their senior councilor in Edinburgh, who was beaten by Professor Pongoo, a man in a penguin suit. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, was left to admit that the results as a whole were “not great.” The core complaint of many of those who put the coalition in office in 2010 is that any such government is by nature a compromise—and one, in this case, seemingly preoccupied with abstract issues, such as the reform of the House of Lords, that are not of obvious assistance to the voters in their daily lives. It is a mood of widespread cynicism and frustration that may yet see the accession of a Prime Minister Johnson—and sooner rather than later.