The Unlikely Front-Runner to Become Mayor of London

Despite mockery and adultery, Conservative Party candidate Boris Johnson is ahead.

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Boris Johnson, the British Conservative Party's candidate for mayor of London.

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LONDON—Boris Johnson, the British Conservative Party's candidate for mayor of London, has a well-earned reputation as the Tories' court jester. No wonder, given his floppy shock of platinum-blond hair, shambolic demeanor, quick—usually puckish, often outrageous—wit and antipathy for political correctness. But the Labor Party-aligned think tank Compass claims Johnson is not "merely a buffoon" but a "hard-line right winger" with colonial-era views of race relations.

Which description is the most apt? Does it matter? Neither seems suited to boost Johnson's chances of winning over voters in this multicultural city of 7.5 million people that historically tilts toward the Labor Party. Right?

Wrong. The 43-year-old Johnson now looks like the man to beat. One poll gives him a 12-point lead over Labor's Ken Livingstone, 62, who's been mayor since 2000, when the post was created. And although most observers think the May 1 election will be much closer, "it is now Boris's to lose," says Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.

It's a race driven less by issues than by personalities, and Johnson's now seems the fresher and more charismatic of the two. Johnson's self-deprecating humor is one selling point. He once said the likelihood of his becoming prime minister is "about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive." And with tongue firmly in cheek, he's called the buttoned-down Tories "the funkiest, most jiving party on Earth."

Many voters find his ability to poke fun at himself, his occasional scandalous behavior, and the political system refreshing, says Julia Clark, head of political research at London pollster Ipsos Mori. "He's the nonpolitician politician."

Moreover, a certain weariness with Livingstone has set in after two four-year terms. His administration has been dogged by accusations of financial mismanagement, and reports of his sipping whiskey at morning meetings have raised eyebrows. Johnson's biggest asset, Clark says, "is that he's not Ken."

Compounding Livingstone's woes is the ongoing poll slide of Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Livingstone could bear the brunt of growing voter unhappiness with Brown's government. That's got Downing Street alarmed, too. A Tory victory in London would be a bad omen for Labor's future.

So Brown's been campaigning for Livingstone—an ironic twist, given their long-standing personal and very open enmity. Says Travers: "Brown and Livingstone are like mortal enemies who find themselves on a raft at sea."

Eight years ago, it was Livingstone who rode a maverick reputation to a landslide victory. Livingstone, whose far-left sympathies earned him the nickname "Red Ken," became a London political star in the 1980s, when he ran the (now abolished) Greater London Council with a mix of populist policies and theatrical agitprop. His class-oriented politics still play well in London's many disadvantaged neighborhoods. He's also popular within the city's many ethnic communities. That's why the race is expected to be close.

Moreover, Johnson—a former journalist whose scribblings often veered toward the glib and insensitive—could find he's now a hard sell to minority voters. For instance, in a 2002 column, he referred to Africans as "picaninnies" with "watermelon smiles." He claims opponents have taken the terms out of context, and supporters scoff at the notion that he's racist.

But no matter how ironically he thought he was wielding those racially charged terms at the time, Travers says, "they don't read so well now. They just look bad."

Johnson's private life has gotten him into trouble, too, including a highly publicized adulterous affair in 2004 with fellow conservative journalist and author Petronella Wyatt. Johnson has been a member of Parliament since 2001, but the affair—and his initial efforts to dispute it—cost him a top job in the Tories' shadow cabinet.

Livingstone has complained that media coverage shouldn't treat the race as if it were an "electoral Celebrity Big Brother." But like Johnson, Livingstone is a seasoned performer in front of the cameras who's also adept at spitting out perfectly formed sound bites.