The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge today interrupted their tour of Australia to send a heartfelt message of sympathy to the Duchess of Cornwall following the death of her brother Mark Shand in New York.
The father of three severely disabled children allegedly killed by their mother was today said to be “beyond shock” as full details of the family’s struggles emerged.
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
11 April 2012
Let us call it the Letwin Test. A 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 Siôn 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. The scene is set for a rough fight between the centre (which wants to control the selection of the Labour candidate) and locality (which wants to make up its own mind).
The elephant trap in all of this is to judge mayoral politics by national standards. Since the war, we have become used to uniformity, standardisation and the unitary state. At national level, politics is smooth, spun and homogenised. The national media look for “splits”, “U-turns” and “worst weeks”. Increasingly, national politicians are mayflies, with ever-shorter lifespans, never permitted to make mistakes, and certainly not allowed a second shot after electoral defeat.
But mayoral politics is not like this: it is messy, cacophonous, bristling with big personalities, big emotions and the occasional big scandal. Think of Troels Hartmann, the Copenhagen mayoral candidate in season one of The Killing, embroiled in a murder investigation. The plot conceit worked precisely because mayoral politics is so much less Olympian, so much grittier than the detached chambers of national democracy.
There are reprieves in mayoral politics, too. Marion Barry, to take an extreme example, was mayor of the District of Columbia between 1979 and 1991 — and then, after six months in federal prison for drug offences, held the office again between 1995 to 1999. A mayor with sufficient charisma is always permitted a comeback. If Ken loses in 2012, it won’t be because he lost in 2008.
And precisely because mayoral politics is different, it is not necessarily a stepping stone to national office. Only three US presidents — Andrew Johnson, Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland — have been ex-mayors, and all three had to serve as state governors first.
This is a trend rather than a rule: Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, both mayors of New York, have at different times looked like plausible presidents-in-waiting. But the point stands — City Hall is more than an apprenticeship for No 10 — and should be a cause for celebration. In the Boris versus Ken bouts, we have witnessed the emergence of a red-blooded, gloves-off civic politics that does not depend upon the national political landscape for its energy or for its importance. This contest is about the future of the world’s greatest city, not the respective standing of Ed Miliband and David Cameron.
With luck, more cities will sign up for this in next month’s referenda. A glorious virus has been let loose from London and is spreading across the land. Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s closest adviser, has indicated that he may run for mayoral office when he returns from sabbatical, on the grounds that this will enable him to make a real difference at street level.
Give the cities a chance and they might spawn a cohort of mayors who breathe life into the grey trade of politics, who transform the way it is practised and the way it is perceived. The Letwin Test may yet be passed.
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