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JOCULAR POPULARITY: The current mayor of London is turning out to be surprisingly difficult to unseat, writes Sarah Lyall
THE students at Croydon College were not sure what Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, does, exactly. But they said they loved him just the same.
"Boris is all about other people; he's always out and about," Katie Ross, who is training to be a hairdresser, said as the dust cloud of blond-haired, quick-tongued dishevelment that is Johnson swept past her in a campaign stop the other day.
She was less sure about his chief opponent, Ken Livingstone, a former mayor, since she had never heard of him ("Who's he?").
With less than two weeks to go before London's mayoral election, the race has come down mostly to a referendum on Johnson -- not his policies, but his personality. Try as they might to focus on issues like housing, policing and the economy, the mayor's opponents have been unable to get past the cult of Boris. Polls show that Johnson is more popular than the Conservative Party he represents and more recognisable than anyone in British politics, including Prime Minister David Cameron.
"I don't know much about politics, but I think he's extremely attractive," said an administrator in the crowd at Croydon College, where Johnson, 47, had just opened a new rotunda with a burst of Boris-ian commentary ("No one is more rotunda than I am!").
"He's got a charisma about him, and he's very entertaining," the administrator added, asking that her name not be used because her supervisor was glaring at her. At that point, Johnson, his hair askew, his bulky weightlifter's physique threatening to burst the buttons on a white chef's jacket, was publicly attempting to cook a crepe suzette to illustrate the effectiveness of the school's cooking-apprentice programme.
He looked suspiciously at the saucepan. "This is the sort of thing they would use in mediaeval siege warfare to pour on their enemies," he said, wrestling with a bubbling stew of melted butter and caramelised sugar.
Johnson -- a Latin-spouting old Etonian with a quip for every occasion, a way of always looking as if he has slept in his clothes, and a life as a TV quiz-show contestant and Daily Telegraph columnist -- was seen as a rank lightweight when he took the mayor's job in 2008, unseating Livingstone, the current Labour Party candidate. But even his opponents concede he has proved a capable administrator and high-profile champion for London. And it is his Teflon-and-krypton deftness as a politician that has proven particularly hard to counter.
"His jocular character is quite an effective political tactic for shrugging off criticism," said Mike Tuffrey, a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly, who said that the mayor had a habit of saying things in one session, only to deny later that he said them. "The sort of bumbling Boris persona is a calculated stratagem."
Johnson regularly rattles the central Conservative Party with off-message policy pronouncements that inevitably raise questions about his larger ambitions (he has no plans to run for party leadership, he says now, but will not rule out anything for the long term). His opponents say that for all his maverick bluster, he is a traditional Tory, supporting policies designed to attract rich people and bankers to London.
"With a Boris victory, we would see a broad realisation of central government policy," said Dave Hill, a Livingstone supporter who writes a politics blog for The Guardian newspaper and refers to Johnson disparagingly as "mayor jolly good-fun".
Livingstone's main legacy as mayor was to install a congestion charge for cars entering central London. Johnson's has been more modest: a bike-rental programme designed to persuade people to travel the city by bicycle.
(He himself bicycles to City Hall each morning, and he once leaped off his bike to thwart a mugging, chasing the would-be muggers down the street and calling them "oiks".) Though the programme was based on those in other cities, such is the force of the Johnson brand that the rentals are known to Londoners as "Boris bikes".
A tough debater with an outsize personality of his own, Livingstone, 67, developed a loyal following as mayor, with sometimes wacky policies, a fondness for newts and a frankly leftist agenda that often irritated his Labour bosses and earned him the title "Red Ken".
But while Johnson's celebrity persona is that of a quick-witted, pratfalling class clown, Livingstone's, increasingly, is that of a mean-spirited class bully. In recent polls, he has lagged about six percentage points behind Johnson.
"There is a growing expectation that it's going to be very difficult for Ken Livingstone," Andrew Hawkins, chairman of the polling and research consultancy ComRes, said.
"At a certain point, he lost this image of being cuddly old Ken, the cheeky chappie. He turned into someone who was more a dark master of political arts."
The race has been bad tempered, characterised by personal digs and unpleasant incidents. After one debate in which Livingstone criticised Johnson's income tax arrangements, Johnson erupted into an obscenity-laced tirade as the two rode in an elevator together, accusing him of lying.
Livingstone recently expressed frustration at having to campaign not against Johnson, the mayor, but against Boris the character.
"Boris realised something before he got into Eton -- if he does this, 'Oh, I will shake my hair and have a joke' -- he gets away with murder," he told reporters.
"I find people on the doorstep who are naturally Labour and they say to me, 'Oh, he does make me laugh'.
"I didn't come into politics to make you laugh. If I wanted to make you laugh, I would have been a bloody stand-up comedian." NYT