London — The British capital is often viewed by those who live outside its busy streets as a nation separate from the rest of the country. And so it proved this week, when the city voted to keep its right-wing mayor as other parts of the UK took a political step to the left.
Although Boris Johnson, the incumbent, claimed the narrowest of victories over his long-term adversary “Red” Ken Livingstone, his ruling Conservative party took a heavy beating in local elections that were viewed as a damning mid-term verdict on the government’s performance.
In an election frequently dismissed as a battle of personalities rather than policies, Johnson’s upper-class bluster appeared to have endeared itself to marginally more people than Livingstone’s bone-dry wit. But — as the result hinged on the last votes counted — only just.
Victory for New York-born Johnson means he will steer the capital as it hosts the 2012 Olympics. With a mandate covering transport, police and housing, he must defy austerity to keep trains running, ensure affordable homes and prevent a repeat of last summer’s citywide riots.
According to his staff, one of Johnson’s priorities will be to order hundreds of controversial new Routemaster buses, despite complaints that his obsession with reviving the classic red double-deckers is a vanity project that blows huge holes in his $22 billion budget.
Johnson’s enthusiasm for the Routemaster is often interpreted as a deliberate attempt to goad Livingstone, who, during two terms as mayor, decommissioned older versions of the bus and replaced them with unpopular, articulated single-deckers known as “bendy buses.”
As victory loomed into view on Friday, Johnson rejected claims he would use his win as a launch pad to return to parliamentary politics where, having proved his populist appeal at a time when his party is struggling, he is seen as a potential replacement for Prime Minister David Cameron.
“I made a solemn vow to Londoners to lead them out of recession, bring down crime and deliver the growth, investment and jobs that this city so desperately needs,” a confident Johnson told London’s Evening Standard well before the final result was announced.
“Keeping that promise cannot be combined with any other political capacity.”
Cameron, however, could be forgiven for looking over his shoulder after poor returns in local elections across Britain dealt heavy blows to his Conservative party and its Liberal Democrat coalition partner, while giving fresh hope to the opposition Labour party under Ed Miliband.
The prime minister, who has faced accusations from within his own party that he is too wealthy to understand the needs of voters, offered an apology for the results and blamed the “difficult times,” which his government has responded to with brutal public-sector cuts.
"What we have to do is take the difficult decisions to deal with the debt, deficit and broken economy that we've inherited, and we will go on making those decisions, and we've got to do the right thing for our country," he said.
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His cause, however, has not been helped by recent embarrassing headlines for his government.
Ministers are blamed for triggering a fuel crisis, failing to deport a high-profile terror suspect, increasing taxes for senior citizens, being too close to media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and, worst of all in the eyes of many ordinary Britons, hiking the price of warm savory snacks.
“Cameron stands accused of lacking drive and grip, of being a posh boy who doesn't know the price of a pint of milk or understand the privations millions face, of being without a strategic sense of direction,” wrote veteran political commentator Michael White.
“Mid-term council seat losses may be dismissed as part of the cycle of politics, but once a leader loses public confidence, it is usually very hard to get it back.”
Whatever their scope, the UK results serve as an interesting curtain-raiser to elections this weekend in France and Greece, where voters are expected to use the ballot box to pass judgment on governments that have used austerity to dig their national finances out of debt.
In Britain, Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose glory was briefly dimmed when he was hit by an egg during a walkabout, said his party’s gains were a sign it was not only recouping trust lost during more than a decade in power, but that it held the key to economic recovery.
"People are suffering, and we have got to show people that Britain can be better than it is,” he said.