Conservatives' London win shows taste for change

LONDON Sat May 3, 2008 8:55am BST

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LONDON (Reuters) - Boris Johnson's triumph in the London mayoral poll shows a thirst for change among voters that does not bode well for Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Johnson, 43, an irreverent Oxford University-educated MP who moonlights as a TV comedy quiz show host, defeated incumbent mayor Ken Livingstone in a huge boost to the opposition Conservatives and a blow to Brown's Labour Party.

Victory in London mirrored Conservative gains in local councils across England and Wales in elections on Thursday, as voters concerned over rising food and energy prices, higher mortgages and a possible housing market slump handed Labour its worst local election defeat on record.

Londoners overlooked Johnson's inexperience and his privileged background, choosing to give him a chance over a practised administrator who had run London for eight years.

Conservative leader David Cameron -- who studied with Johnson at Oxford and at exclusive private school Eton -- can now hope Britons' will give him a shot at the premiership over a party that has been in power since 1997.

The next general election is due by mid-2010 at the latest.

Johnson's win "will give them (the Conservatives) a fillip -- it's the most important directly elected post, of huge influence and very high profile," said Dominic Wring, a political analyst at Loughborough University.

Some analysts said Johnson won on an anti-government tide. Wring, however, cautioned against assuming a direct link between the mayoral vote and the next national poll.

SPRINGBOARD

This mayoral vote was more about personality rather than the bread-and-butter economic issues that dominated campaigns in the rest of the country.

The novelty factor of Johnson, with his mop of blonde hair and mischievous wit, boosted the turnout in the capital. Even his frequent gaffes helped make him a household name.

He now takes charge of a budget of 11 billion pounds, the 2012 Olympic Games and the aspirations and daily frustrations of some 7.5 million Londoners.

He will be responsible for addressing a housing shortage, global warming, a much-maligned transport system and ensuring Britain remains a major financial centre.

Get it right and Cameron could use the capital as a springboard for the next national poll. Get it wrong and Labour will use Johnson to paint the Conservatives as unfit for office.

"The very fact he (Johnson) has been so attacked for being shambolic and incompetent, it probably means he will start with such low expectations that it might be easy to turn out to be quite good," said Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics.

But he added: "I would not be surprised if David Cameron ... didn't try to ensure that the mayor's office was run in a way that utterly minimised the risk to the national Conservative party."

Livingstone said Johnson would be a "disaster" for London but Johnson supporters said he would surprise his detractors, aided by a team of shrewd advisors.

Unsurprisingly, his father predicted he would be a huge success, although not for obvious reasons.

"He knows his Greek, he knows his Latin and if you can do Greek and Latin ... you can do virtually anything, certainly running a city like London," Stanley Johnson told the BBC.

(Additional reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by David Clarke)

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