Why Boris Johnson is the winner whatever happens on 3 May
If Boris loses to Ken, he can step up for the bigger prize and take on the beleaguered Cameron
WOULD Boris Johnson be happy to lose next month's London Mayoral election? An absurd thought, surely. No politician – certainly not one with an ego the size of the Tory blond bombshell's – would relish the idea of defeat.
During an election that is certainly true. The adrenalin of campaigning breeds optimism on the direst of days. But after the event the idea that it might actually have been "a good election to lose" can quickly take hold.
Take Labour in 1992. When the 20th anniversary of that election fell earlier this month, masochistic Labour party members got the chance to relive the misery of election night courtesy of the BBC Parliament channel, which re-ran the election night broadcast from 9 April 1992.
The evening began with David Dimbleby headlining an exit poll that suggested Neil Kinnock was heading for Downing Street. Seven hours later Kinnock was drawing up outside Labour headquarters for a tearful meeting with party staff and supporters.
He had been trounced by John Major, who secured the biggest ever popular vote in a British general election, more than Tony Blair in his heyday. (The vagaries of the first-past-the-post system meant Major had a majority of only 20 MPs compared to Blair's serial landslides.)
But the Tories were doomed to clear up an economic mess of their own making and within months came the calamity of Black Wednesday. It was a political disaster from which Tory support has never fully recovered. They flatlined in the polls for a decade and a half. In short, it was an election they might have done well to lose. Let the other party deal with the mess.
David Cameron got them back in contention in 2010, but only as far as being the biggest party in a hung Parliament. Now, the Tory poll numbers are back where they were in the dark days and Labour under Ed Miliband are polling in the low 40s. According to the website UK Polling Report, the average Labour lead in recent polls would give Miliband a Blair-sized majority in the Commons of almost 100 MPs.
This is the national backdrop to the London mayoral contest where latest polling makes it generally neck-and-neck between Boris Johnson and the man he beat in 2008, Labour's Ken Livingstone, though with Boris ahead in some polls.
For Livingstone, losing would be a personal defeat, especially if predictions are fulfilled and Labour gains more than 500 council seats in the rest of the country. Unlike last time, Ken would have no one else to blame.
For Boris the picture is entirely different. He knows that if he does sneak back into City Hall he will spend four years administering the even harsher cuts still to come from George Osborne. If he loses it will be because he has been dragged down by the recent gaffe-strewn record of the Cameron government.
But if he does fail, he can expect to sweep back into the Commons as a Tory MP in the first suitable by-election, ready to become a standard-bearer for the likes of Nadine Dorries and make life a misery for her "two posh boys who don't know the price of milk".
As Richard Ehrman argued here last week, Cameron can survive while there is no rival waiting to challenge him - "no Heseltine ready to stick the knife in". But if Boris, whose easy charm masks a steely ambition, were to reappear on the national scene, it would be a very different matter.
Boris Johnson would be forgiven for thinking that, whichever way it goes in London on 3 May, he can't lose.