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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 August 2007, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Lembit declines to enter London race
From left Lembit Opik, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson
Lembit Opik (left) had been tipped to take on Boris Johnson(right) and Ken Livingstone

By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

It was probably inevitable. Once it emerged the best qualification for running as London mayor was being known by just one name, the Liberal Democrats had little choice.

So, the suggestion came that it would be Lembit who takes on Ken and, most likely, Boris. Dull it wouldn't be.

For a few hours at least, until he ruled himself, we were able to examine Mr Opik's qualifications for what is one of the four or five most powerful and important jobs in British politics.

Ken Livingstone
Current mayor Ken Livingstone won his first election as an independent

He plays the mouth organ, fears asteroids will destroy the planet, and used to date a weather girl until he traded her in for one of the Cheeky variety.

If that doesn't get Boris and Ken shaking in their shoes, then we obviously aren't all living in the celebrity culture where being known for being known is all that matters.

After all, scarecrow-haired Boris' great claims to fame are bicycling around London, upsetting Liverpudlians and revelations which led to his name being prefixed by the word "bonking" in tabloid headlines for a time.

'Engaging, witty, thoughtful'

So, for a few hours it seemed the contest to oust Ken - who no longer needs the "red" prefix to identify him - was set to be as close to a reality TV show as serious politics could get.

This may all be doing a huge disservice to both Lembit and Boris, both of whom are more serious politicians than their public images suggest.

Lembit Opik MP with the Cheeky Girls
Lembit Opik pictured with the Cheeky Girls

But they are the ones who created their public images after all.

In person, both men are engaging, witty and thoughtful. But they share the same problem, and it also lies in the way the public react to their names and celebrity.

Prompting a smile is one thing, and will probably work to both their advantages. If it turns to laughter, however, that is another matter.

The question hanging over them both is whether they are "appropriate" or, more pointedly, "safe enough" for a seriously heavyweight job.

No one doubts Boris' intellect or entirely falls for the upper class buffoon image he seems to have deliberately cultivated .

Gaffes galore

He is a former editor of the Spectator magazine and has held jobs as shadow arts minister and shadow higher education minister.

But some react very badly to his fogeyish image and, more dangerously, his gaffes. His personal life, which saw him sacked from his first frontbench job, has also proved difficult for the Tories in the past.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson is known as much for his idiosyncratic style as for his political skills

He caused one of his biggest stirs when he accepted responsibility for a Spectator leader column accusing Liverpudlians of "wallowing in victim status" after the murder of hostage Ken Bigley.

His boss, then Michael Howard, ordered him to travel to the city and apologise, which he did to mixed reviews.

He later had to apologise to the people of Papua New Guinea after linking the island state with "cannibalism and chief-killing".

And the sight of him besieged by photographers at last year's Tory conference after an outburst against telly chef Jamie Oliver livened up an otherwise deadly dull event.

Most recently, he was at it again, writing that Portsmouth was "a place that is arguably too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs".

'Hello, cheeky'

Lembit probably first came to public attention as the man who kept banging on about the end of the world being nigh-ish, thanks to the inevitability of an meteorite strike.

That saw him the object of many jibes - until scientists said he was right.

He then became a fully paid up member of the Have I Got News For You circus, although Boris beat him to that one.

It won't be long before someone suggests Have I Got News For You, rather than Newsnight, hosts the big mayoral debate

And his relationship/engagement to weather girl Sian Lloyd - and her subsequent public attacks on his behaviour - won him plenty of newspaper inches.

But all of this was overshadowed when it emerged he had started dating Gabriela Irimia - one of the Cheeky Girls pop duo who hit the chart tops with Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum).

The cry "hello cheeky" - amongst others -greeted him every time he entered the Commons chamber.

He is, however, also the Liberal Democrat frontbencher responsible for business.

Still, if he had decided to challenge Ken Livingstone, he would have been up against a man who has won two thumping victories and whose campaigning skills are legendary.

Tony Blair was wrong

Toppling him next time will be a huge challenge which will require more than just celebrity.

Mr Livingstone, a regular on chat shows himself before becoming mayor, has had his own controversies to contend with, however.

Two years ago he was accused of bringing his office into disrepute after he compared a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

He later won an appeal against the finding by the adjudication panel for England.

He only came to power in London after fighting off determined attempts by Labour - led by then prime minister Tony Blair - to stop him, including throwing him out of the party after he said he would stand against the official Labour candidate as an independent.

Mr Livingstone went on to win the election and Mr Blair later relented and admitted he had been wrong.

The stage was set for three of the best known political mavericks to go head-to-head. But it now seems that Lembit has decided it is not a contest he wants to run in.

Which will be a blow to those who were hoping to see a mayoral race staged in the style of to a long-running episode of Have I Got News For You.

Lib Dem Opik 'may run for mayor'
01 Aug 07 |  UK Politics
Johnson on Tory mayor shortlist
21 Jul 07 |  UK Politics
Can Boris take on Ken?
16 Jul 07 |  UK Politics

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