The British version of Rob Ford

September 03, 2010

Michael Taube

Rob Ford has been a Toronto city councillor for 10 years. During this time, he’s been everything from a shining beacon of light for fiscal conservatism to a poster boy for controversy. His mayoralty campaign has also been a mirror image of his political career.

Yet, if a municipal election were held today, Ford would be elected mayor. This potential outcome is driving large chunks of Toronto’s chattering class up a wall.

I believe this is a good thing. Toronto desperately needs a mayor who will clean up government waste and promote fiscal responsibility. And while I’m not supporting Ford — as mentioned in a Star column, I’m backing Rocco Rossi due to his fiscally conservative platform and cleaner public record — I would welcome someone with his conservative credentials as mayor.

That being said, I understand why some Torontonians are struggling to figure out why Ford is doing so well. For all of his gaffes and mishaps, a recent Angus Reid poll revealed he had a six-point lead on his nearest rival, former Ontario Liberal health minister George Smitherman. They’re looking at this phenomenon as an isolated event, and keep scratching their heads.

That’s where the anti-Ford contingent is making its first big mistake. They haven’t considered the fact that the very same thing happened in London, England.

In 2008, Boris Johnson, former editor of The Spectator and then-Tory MP for Henley, decided to run for mayor. A talented journalist, author and speaker, he was also viewed by many Londoners as a gaffe-prone and eccentric right-winger. He had been accused of everything from alleged racist comments to extramarital affairs. His candidacy worried more than a few Conservative politicians and right-leaning commentators, and he was even called a “joke” by the two-term incumbent, Ken Livingstone.

But the mayor was hardly clean. While his strong stance against terrorism after the July 7, 2005, subway bombings was commendable, his views and policies were way to the left of most Brits (hence the nickname “Red” Ken). He had once been called British PM Tony Blair’s “nightmare” while serving as a Labour MP — and was expelled by the party for a few years. He also reportedly made some anti-Semitic statements (one of them caught on tape), signed a controversial oil deal with Venezuela’s left-wing president, Hugo Chavez, and was accused of “cronyism” due to certain government contracts and hirings.

Johnson therefore ran on an anti-government, pro-reform campaign that called for sweeping changes to the municipal system. One campaign manifesto, Making London’s Mayor Accountable, noted, “Londoners should have a greater say on how their city is run, more information on how decisions are made and details on how city hall money is spent.” In another manifesto, Making London Safer, he declared that he would “tear up red tape and needless form-filling, so we can get more police out on the streets” and start “spending less money on press officers and more money on police officers to increase their presence on buses, trains and station platforms.”

Johnson’s campaign confused many Londoners. Even though Livingstone was hardly the ideal candidate, they believed their city had grown comfortable with his leadership. In their view, why would London move from one extreme to the other?

Ultimately, it was rather easy to understand. Johnson had found a niche attacking a left-wing council and mayor, and translated it into a successful campaign. He was going to promote free enterprise, increase the private sector, get tough on crime, and clean up government. In the end, Johnson won a famous victory.

To be sure, Ford is a different political candidate than Johnson. But he’s employing the same strategy — and to his credit, it’s working rather well.

All that remains is whether Ford can follow in Johnson’s footsteps and win. Right now, it appears to be his race to lose.

Michael Taube is a former speech writer for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.


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