First London, then the UK? Mayor eyes key poll win

AP News
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Posted: May 02, 2012 1:35 PM
First London, then the UK? Mayor eyes key poll win

It's an Olympic tussle _ an election battle to win control of London's City Hall just weeks before hundreds of thousands of athletes and spectators arrive in the British capital for the Summer Games.

But local elections being held Thursday across Britain, including a vote for London's next mayor, could have more far-reaching repercussions _ catapulting Boris Johnson, the capital's famously unkempt, outspoken but well-liked leader on a path to national power.

Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party, which leads Britain's coalition government, is expected to lose hundreds of seats in elections for about 180 municipal authorities in England, Wales and Scotland.

Voters are expected to shun his party, weary over the biting cuts to services and welfare that Cameron's austerity measures have delivered and concerned over the British economy's lurch back into recession.

But while Cameron sees his poll ratings plummet, his Conservative colleague Johnson _ a long time friend and rival _ is on course to trounce other contenders to lead London.

Johnson has used his four-year tenure as mayor to advocate lower taxes and a referendum on leaving the European Union _ ideas that appeal to rank and file Conservatives _ while Cameron has struggled to accommodate demands from his coalition partners, the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Many grass-roots Conservatives grumble over Cameron's failure to win Britain's 2010 national election outright, which locked them in an awkward coalition government.

Vernon Bogdanor, a political analyst at King's College London who previously taught Cameron at Oxford University, said Johnson could capitalize on a growing influence of city mayors in Britain's political life.

"If Boris Johnson was to win the London mayoral election, even though the Conservatives are so far behind in national opinion polls, he would be seen as a potential party leader," Bogdanor said.

A victory for Johnson would "have a very dynamic effect on British politics," he said.

Most polls show Cameron's Conservatives trailing the main opposition Labour party by about 10 percentage points, while Johnson holds a lead of around 12 points over his Labour challenger Ken Livingstone in surveys on the London race.

Though 47-year-old Johnson, born in New York, shares the same elite background as Cameron, his rumpled appearance, florid speaking style and frequent _ sometimes offensive _ gaffes give him a populist appeal.

"It's much more frequent on the continent, but here, at least before the London mayoralty, to be credible as a political leader you had to be a parliamentarian _ now you don't ... British politics has a new route," Bogdanor said.

The northern cities of Liverpool and Salford will elect their first mayors on Thursday, while 10 other cities vote to decide if they want their own elected chiefs in the future.

Most results will be announced Friday.