More devolution will mean getting used to politicians jumping between local and national government.
In one of the few results from Thursday that surprised no one, the Mayor of London won his West London parliamentary race. From now on, Boris Johnson will be able leave his office in City Hall and catch the River Bus up the Thames to his second job (or third if you include co-writing newspaper columns), sitting on the green benches of the Commons as the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge. He will also be attending political cabinet, but he has not, significantly, been put in charge of any government department.
Is it possible to be an effective Mayor of London and MP at the same time? The answer is probably yes. To borrow David Cameron’s phrase, having more than one political job is a bit like eating Shredded Wheat: two are wonderful, but three is too many. While a place in Cameron’s political cabinet doesn’t quite constitute a whole third job, if Boris were to take up a ministerial post on top of his duties as an MP and as mayor of London, it would give rise to a workload and conflicts of interest that not even the most mercurial of modern politicians could bear. It will also go beyond the norms of most other Western democracies. Since 1997, French mayors in the National Assembly have been expected to resign their position – often to become first deputy mayors – in order to become a government minister.
People shouldn’t get angry or act surprised if he stays in post until 2016. Precedent has already been set in London, when Ken Livingstone represented Brent East for over a year after winning the first mayoral election in 2000. And in any case, on a purely practical and logistical level, staying on as mayor would avoid an expensive and unnecessary by-election that wouldn’t be worth the small period of overlap between the jobs.
These kinds of questions, in all likelihood, will crop up more frequently in the future. As the new government devolves greater powers into the hands of big city metro mayors, national politicians will see the opportunity to put their values into practice at a city-region level. Even without any greater powers, Sir Peter Soulsby has already made the switch from Whitehall to town hall in Leicester, while Liam Byrne, Gisela Stuart and Sion Simon had hoped to do the same in Birmingham before the mayoral referendum failed in 2012.
In London, Tessa Jowell, the frontrunner in Labour’s mayoral race, has already stepped down from Parliament to concentrate on her campaign, while the other main candidates – Sadiq Khan, Diane Abbott and David Lammy – are all MPs who would jump at the chance to leave SW1 for SE1. If any of these figures show themselves to be exceptional mayors, then they too may want a clear pathway back into national government in the future.
While Boris’s job share may cause headlines, with the devolution genie now out of the bottle, the journey for political leaders from local to national government and back again will be made more frequently. It’s time to get used to this new reality.
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