How many Etonians does it take to change a Mayor? Three. One to step down, one to step up and one on the steps of Downing Street.
No, that wasn’t the warm-up gag for Boris Johnson, Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron as they hit the campaign trail in suburban West London for one last Tory heave in the London mayoral race. But it could very well have been.
The political celebrity threesome (which had seemed strangely injuncted not to appear together at the same time in this campaign until today) positively bounced onto a small stage at Grey Court School in Richmond.
Located in the strong home territory of Goldsmith’s constituency, where he increased his majority by a massive 19,000 at the last election, the ‘outstanding’ state school was praised by the Prime Minister in his introduction.
The last time this hall heard a crowd of similar adulation, it was for the end-of-year production of the Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You’. Sadly, Zac, Cam and Boris didn’t stare out from a blacked-out background and warble Etonian Rhapsody (that’s enough Eton jokes).
With party workers avidly waving cards in an overheated room, this was a clear attempt to repeat the buzz and excitement of that 2015 general election victory, and the PM was almost transported back to the heady days when he was thrashing Labour on the campaign trail.
Goldsmith himself seemed to have caught Cameron’s infamous ‘it pumps me up’ bug, arriving on stage with a fist pump-action worthy of Iain Duncan Smith greeting a Budget highlight. “Zac! Zac! Zac!” yelled the gathered Tory party workers. Goldsmith, a naturally shy and self-effacing politician, looked like a bewildered lottery winner.
The PM, the only one of the trio whose suit seemed to fit and yet didn’t wear a tie, was as relaxed as usual. He heaped praise on Zac, while trying to make a virtue of his lack of pizzazz. “He’s not in it for the power, he’s not in it for the glory.” He’s not in it, forever and ever, Amen, the pollsters appear to say.
Only today, another poll put the Tory contender a nine points behind Sadiq Khan (who at this event was referred to but not by name) on first preferences. He is a huge 14 points behind on all first and second preferences. Labour supporters can almost picture Zac singing plaintively that Queen lyric “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a Khan landslide, no escape from reality..”
But Cameron was having none of it. “You’ll read the opinion polls,” he told the throng. “Now I think I’m someone who can tell you a few things about opinion polls….” Cue cheers. “There’s only one poll that matters and that’s on Thursday!”
With Boris gurning his inimitable grin in the background, the PM said “The truth is this works when you have a mayor and a government working hand in glove. We can have Crossrail 2, we can have that extra investment…” At this point, Boris heckled “We WILL have it!”
After another dig at He Who Must Not Be Named (who had nominated Jeremy Corbyn and not regretted it “Boo!”), Cameron moved on to introduce Boris, who was due to introduce Zac. “Boris is not only a great friend. Boris is also a fantastic Mayor,” he declared, with the blond bombshell looking on. Not surprisingly, he didn’t repeat his line in Grazia in which he’d admitted that - thanks to Europe - “I’m still friends with Boris, just perhaps not such good friends.”
Next up was Bojo himself. And he delivered his own lines like the political rock star he is. He railed against Ken Livingstone’s regime as “a bunch of high-taxing, high-spending, taxpayer-funded Chateauneuf-du-Pape-swilling, Hugo Chavez-venerating bendybus-ers”. And warned that Khan (whom he had no problem naming) was “the emanation…he has come out of the, the…woodwork…he has emerged from the Corbynistas, the Livingstonians, he comes from that strain of political thinking.” “Do we want those types of people back in City Hall?” he yelled. “No!” shouted the crowd.
Of course, even when he’s meant to be on his best behaviour, Boris can’t help himself. And so he interrupted his riff on Zac’s qualities with a reference to the dreaded Third Runway. “He has fantastic policies. This is a man who has campaigned on the environment…who has campaigned on Heathrow airport…” “Never mind that for the moment,” he said, looking swiftly at the man he called ‘Dave’. Cue guffaws from the audience, which is in the frontline of the anti-Heathrow campaign. He ended with a menacing warning about the Khan-Corbyn menace: “We have just 48 hours to keep them out!”
Without further ado, Boris intro-d the man who wants to succeed him at City Hall. “Give it up for Zac Goldsmith!” he said, in the manner of a TV show host. And, just like those Brits on US-style gameshows who are just so excited to be there at all, Zac clapped himself.
There’s an old saying that after the Lord Mayor’s Show, comes the dust-cart (which is itself a euphemism for something more earthy, and more Cockney).
And it’s difficult not to feel a pang of sympathy for any man who has to follow not just a freewheeling, chillaxed PM but also the consummate performer that is Boris Johnson. Zac, his quiet voice as unsuited to rabble-rousing as his natural demeanour, gave it a stab.
“Boris, you step down as Mayor in two days…” he said. To which the crowd interrupted with a huge “Awwww!” Zac nearly even joined in the mourning that the Mayor was quitting, before remembering that in fact he was selling himself as a worthy replacement. “I know, it’s too late…you can leave with your head held high.”
Zac praised his campaign workers. “I can hardly find the words….Some of you have give the best part of a year, flogging the streets, talking to residents….” That flogging the streets wasn’t a reference to the Government’s planned sell-off of council housing, it was a mash-up of ‘hitting the streets’ and ‘flogging yourselves’ for the cause. One assumes.
He then revealed he would be joining the Tory candidate for the GLA who also happens to be a milkman, on his 4.30am morning round tomorrow. “I will literally be delivering for London..delivering leaflets!” Zac declared. The audience indulged him, as one of their own, laughing at the gag.
Still, every now and again, as Zac continued, Boris and Dave appeared to be drifting away, their gazes staring into the distance, perhaps on thoughts of their own, much bigger political gambles at stake in the June EU referendum.
Yet there was not a single mention of Europe tonight. For Boris and Zac, Brexiteers both, the push for Brexit was the shove that dare not speak its name.
And before you knew it, it was all over. The PM was mobbed by well-wishers (“Selfie! Prime Minister!”), Boris made an unusually swift exit and Goldsmith was left almost on the fringes, hugging his mum Annabel, who had turned up, beaming with pride.
The audience ebbed away like those 'We Will Rock You' musical goers. Come May 6th, we’ll all find out if Zac’s played the game the right way. Or if another one bites the dust.