Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

More Noisy Mayoral Scraps Will Galvanise British Politics; Directly Elected Mayors, like London's, Would Do Wonders for England's 11 Largest Cities. They Decide on May 3

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

More Noisy Mayoral Scraps Will Galvanise British Politics; Directly Elected Mayors, like London's, Would Do Wonders for England's 11 Largest Cities. They Decide on May 3

Article excerpt

Byline: Matthew d'Ancona

[bar] ET us call it the Letwin Test.

LA decade ago, when he was shadow home secretary, Oliver Letwin argued to me that the principle of decentralisation, however noble, would not mean much until civic and community leaders were the first port of call for the media whenever a local crisis erupted. As long as the relevant Cabinet minister was always the person who ended up in the hot seat on the Today programme or Newsnight, the grip of Whitehall centralisation would be unbroken.

On May 3, it is probable that our democratic system will move a few all-important steps closer to meeting Letwin's rigorous test. Alongside the normal local elections, referenda will be held in England's 11 largest cities to decide whether or not to introduce directly elected mayors in each of those urban areas. While London chooses once again between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, Liverpool -- which has moved ahead without a referendum -- will vote for its first mayor under the new system. Salford, which held its referendum in January, will also hold its inaugural mayoral election in 23 days' time.

Naturally, as Londoners, our eyes will be fixed on the outcome of the Boris-Ken rematch -- a race which, according to yesterday's ComRes poll, is swinging the incumbent's way. If Boris does win a second term, then his confrontation with the Labour candidate in a lift at LBC on April 3 -- first reported in this newspaper -- will be remembered as the crux of the campaign, the moment when the normally amiable Mayor, goaded by Ken's allegation that he was avoiding tax, lost his patience and called his opponent a "f**king liar".

At that point, it became all-but-inevitable that the candidates would have to resolve the matter by disclosing their respective tax arrangements. The mystery is that Ken was not remotely prepared for this entirely predictable call for transparency, and laid himself vulnerable to charges of evasiveness (he was slippery about his own arrangements) and hypocrisy (he deploys precisely the sort of tax avoidance measures used by the "rich bastards" he has said should be denied the vote).

Whatever the result of this particular contest, the 12-year-long London mayoral experiment has already delivered. Its rich, primary colours -- its vivid personalities, its rumbling feuds, its reinvention of noisy civic politics -- have been the indispensable backdrop to next month's referenda. Even as Boris and Ken tear at each other's flesh, the future of Birmingham's proposed mayoralty has become the subject of bitter dispute. Yesterday, the Guardian revealed that senior Labour officials are considering a bar on MPs standing in mayoral contests, ostensibly to prevent costly and politically dangerous by-elections. In Birmingham, the practical consequence of such a bar would be to exclude Liam Byrne, a politician with the ability to be a fine Chancellor, and Gisela Stuart, one of her party's most admirable mavericks.

It would favour Sion Simon, also a very able politician and former minister, who stood down as an MP at the last election and has been focusing upon the future of Birmingham for months. …

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