On 28th November 2011 the headline in the Evening Standard was unequivocal: ‘Four more years of Boris, says poll.’ A Com Res poll had put Boris eight points clear of Livingstone. It cheered Boris up immensely, but the campaign team was more circumspect. We were of the view that it was much better to be marginally behind – all the better to fight complacency with. Complacency was a big problem; it would mean Conservative voters staying at home in the belief that Boris would win, allowing Ken to sneak in by the back door by turning out his own supporters in huge numbers. Our own internal polling had already uncovered a big expectation that Boris would win. In an election where turnout was everything, that was a problem. Equally, we were anxious that the sense of complacency within City Hall was reduced as much as possible. Crosby stressed that the headline voting intention should be taken with a pinch of salt – it was based on an unrealistically high turnout of 51% (turnout at the last mayoral election was a record 45%).
We looked at the detail of the poll, and it confirmed Crosby’s earlier analysis that an election about transport could only benefit Ken. Unsurprisingly, Livingstone’s policy of cutting fares was far more popular than Boris’s policy of increasing them. The argument that higher fares are worth paying for better services fell on deaf ears, with only 17% agreeing and a massive 70% opposed. 59% felt that the priority should be keeping fares low, even if it meant stopping upgrade work. Ken was more trusted on transport, and a clear majority of Londoners felt that the tube had not improved under Boris (by 37% to 30%).
The good news was that Boris led in the poll on all the other major issues, particularly the economy and crime. There was also an interesting finding that we would seek to capitalise on. An overwhelming majority preferred Boris open the Olympics than Ken, by 41% to 33%. This was echoed in the focus groups, where people felt that having such a divisive politician like Ken would send a negative message to the rest of the world.
The campaign had to stop talking about transport, and start talking about the other issues where Boris was stronger. However, Boris was very unhappy about the fares situation. He hates doing anything unpopular and he was really starting to see just how bad this issue was for him. You couldn’t blame him – what politician would want to go into an election defending (in effect) tax increases? He was desperately looking for a way to mitigate the pain Londoners were feeling.
Fares had taken on a national dimension as well; with a lot of campaigning by Labour and the unions against the planned national rail fare increases due in January 2012. Chancellor George Osborne was coming under pressure and he could see the damage the issue was doing to Boris. Cameron and Osborne had made clear to Boris from the start that they would do as much as they could to help him get re-elected, understanding the impact a defeat would have on Conservative fortunes. As rumours circulated that Osborne might be able to limit the damage with spare cash, Boris lobbied hard to make sure London would be included in any relief.
Over the weekend of 26th and 27th November, it was confirmed that in the forthcoming Autumn Statement extra money had been found to limit the national and London fare increases. This meant Boris would be able to limit the fare increase to inflation plus 1% instead of 2%. We greeted the news with mixed feelings. It was a good way of emphasising one of Boris’s main strengths – bringing home the bacon from the Treasury. But on the other hand, it wouldn’t make that much difference and it was nothing compared to what Ken was offering. It would only prolong a conversation we didn’t want to have. And again, it risked allowing Ken to set the agenda.
Another exclusive behind the scenes view from the book "Victory in London - the 2012 Boris Johnson Campaign"