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LABOR'S LOST LOVE
NEW LONDON MAYOR A TORY TYRO
by John O'Sullivan
New York Post
May 6, 2008

May 6, 2008 -- CONJURE up in your mind someone who's a blend of rising politician Barack Obama, serial philanderer Eliot Spitzer and roly-poly comedian Drew Carey - and an Englishman of a slightly old-fashioned "jolly good show, chaps" type.

Such a paragon was elected London mayor last Friday.

Boris Johnson is a popular TV personality, a Tory member of Parliament, a former editor of the Spectator and a deceptively relaxed figure whose Bertie Wooster locutions and mannerisms conceal the sharp political mind of a Jeeves.

His clown persona seemed a fatal handicap just a few months ago, when a desperate Tory party persuaded Johnson to be its candidate for the London mayoralty against the Left's "Red Ken" Livingstone.

But he combed his unruly blond hair, got fitted out in a respectable dark suit, cut down on the jokes and "By Joves!" and memorized a series of policy points to impress the pundits. He won by a solid 8 points.

Of course, Johnson himself was less than half the reason. Londoners were finally fed up with Red Ken - who had governed by a divisive left-wing political strategy of setting one half of London against the other. Eventually, the voters he'd alienated added up to more than 50 percent.

And Londoners, like the rest of Britain, are fed up with New Labor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Nationwide, Labor's share of the vote in local elections fell to 24 percent - 20 points behind the main opposition Tories and one point behind the third-party Liberal Democrats.

This was Labor's worst performance in any British election in more than 40 years. If repeated in the next general election - which must come less than two years hence - it would put Labor firmly out of power.

It threatens to put Brown out of Downing Street well before then.

Brown's career is shaping up as a tragedy. For 10 long years in government, he resented Tony Blair's easy success, blocking whatever Blairite reforms he could. He plotted in the shadows to replace him and run a genuine reforming government. But when Blair (reluctantly) made way for him, Brown fizzled.

It didn't seem that way at first. The series of eye-catching initiatives he'd prepared for his opening months in Downing Street worked well, and he also enticed senior opposition Tories to help him. He began to think of holding an early election to capitalize on this success.

But when the Tories, unified by the imminent threat of an election defeat, rallied and held a barnstorming party conference, the polls turned in their favor. It was almost certainly a temporary blip - but Brown backed off. He ruled out an election - one that everyone else believed he would win - and his reputation and fortunes since have declined steadily.

The Romans had a phrase for this: Capax imperii nisi imperasset. Roughly translated, it means: "He would have made a great emperor if only he hadn't been emperor."

Labor MPs now take this view of Brown, talking of a parliamentary coup to replace him if things don't improve. But Labor's deeper problem is that, whoever is Labor leader, things are unlikely to improve.

The British economy is suffering from both the world economic slowdown and the overtaxation and overregulation of the UK economy that Prime Minister Brown inherited from Finance Minister Gordon Brown.

All this is music to the ears of Tory leader David Cameron. His party's 44 percent of last week's vote, if repeated next time, would give him a majority in Parliament of about 125 seats - the second-largest Tory majority since 1945.

Some Tories are already ordering the drink trays for their ministerial limousines. But Cameron - a Tory grandee like Johnson, but a cooler one - will be more cautious.

Cameron knows that governments often recover from midterm blues, that the Tories would be more likely to win 44 percent in the next election if they were getting 50 percent now - and that the implosion of Brown and New Labor accounts for maybe two-thirds of the current Tory recovery.

Cameron deserves credit for schooling his party to benefit from Labor's troubles - but he will be uneasily aware that traffic accidents can happen to even the best-regulated parties.

Take Boris. He might create havoc in London and damage the Tory brand. Or he might triumph - and emerge as a rival to Cameron.

With Boris driving the London bus, a traffic accident of some kind is more or less inevitable.

John O'Sullivan is executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a Hudson Institute senior fellow and a Post former editorial-page editor. The opinions he expresses are his own and not those of any organization.

 

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