Conservative elected mayor of London

Poor showing in local elections ominous for Britain's Labor Party

May 03, 2008|By New York Times News Service

LONDON -- Boris Johnson, the floppy-haired media celebrity and Conservative member of Parliament who transformed himself from a shambling, amusing-aphorism-uttering figure of fun into a plausible political force, was elected mayor of London yesterday.

Johnson's surprising victory was not only a triumph of his own singular style, but also a resounding public rebuke to the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a day full of such rebukes.

As votes were tallied across the country after Thursday's elections, it emerged that the Labor Party had suffered its worst local election results in at least 40 years.

With final votes in for the 159 local councils in which seats were being contested, Labor lost 331 seats overall, and the Conservative opposition gained 256.

The Labor Party took an estimated 24 percent of the overall vote, placing it a woeful third behind the Conservatives, with 44 percent, and the Liberal Democrats, with 25 percent.

But it was the mayoral race, in which Johnson, 43, defeated the experienced Labor incumbent, Ken Livingstone, 62, by 1,168,738 votes to 1,028,966 votes, that was the biggest shock - a sure sign of a deep national weariness with the Labor government.

London has been resolutely Labor in recent years, and its loss is a bitter blow to the national party.

"This was the first big test of Gordon Brown and David Cameron," said Stephan Shakespeare, a co-founder of YouGov, a polling company, speaking of the Conservative Party leader. "We've had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of debate and a lot of polling, and until this moment the general feeling of malaise that hung over this government hasn't been made concrete or specific. Now it has. It shows that something has profoundly changed in British politics."

In his colorful career, the new London mayor has survived public airing of an extramarital affair whose existence he originally denied as an "inverted pyramid of piffle"; has apologized to whole cities, like Liverpool, that he offended in one way or another; and has been prone to saying things like: "Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3."

He has developed a reputation for having a fearsome but unserious intellect and for wading into and out of embarrassing scrapes. But a man who has previously poked fun at the political process, saying: "I can't remember what my line on drugs is. What's my line on drugs?" and: "I'm backing David Cameron's campaign out of pure, cynical self-interest," has been kept under a tight rein this time around, sticking to issues like crime and transportation.

After the votes were read out - under the British system, the losers stand in public alongside the winner as the results are announced - Johnson gave a sober and gracious victory speech.

He acknowledged that many Londoners, even some who had voted for him, had misgivings about his qualifications for the job, but pledged to "work flat-out" to earn their trust.

"Tomorrow we'll work like crazy," said Johnson, who gave up alcohol during the campaign. "But tonight we'll have a drink."

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