London’s Odd Mayoral Couple

London waited 2,000 years to get its first directly elected mayor. Now that it has one, the quadrennial race for the job has become the liveliest electoral circus in the land. Credit for making up for lost time goes to Ken Livingstone, an ex-Trotskyite turned defender of globalization who was elected eight years ago and has crammed as much zest and controversy as possible into his two terms. This time around the Labour Party's "Red Ken" may have met his match in Boris Johnson, a demicelebrity of the Tory right known for his erudition—carefully concealed by his inability to string sentences together—and a mop of blond hair that, in full flight, resembles an exploding dandelion.

A city that rose from Londinium in Roman times to its current incarnation as the epicenter of Cool Britannia—where every second child is born to an immigrant mother, where the Square Mile financial district has surpassed Wall Street as the global financial capital—deserves a race like this. An old socialist known to keep newts as pets is up against an Old Etonian whose day job is member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames, a posh suburb an hour from central London. Among a diverse pack of second-tier candidates in the May 1 election, the closest thing to a challenge comes from the Liberal Democrats' Brian Paddick, a gay former deputy assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police Service who once made headlines by instructing his officers not to penalize people for marijuana offenses.

Paddick seems a by-the-book Victorian compared with the two front runners. Livingstone, now 62, first rose to prominence as the fiery Labour Party leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) during the Thatcher years. He adopted knee-jerk, over-the-top positions—declaring, for example, that Britain's treatment of Irish Catholics was "as bad in 800 years as what Hitler did to the Jews in six." He declared political war on the Iron Lady herself, pronouncing the capital a nuclear-free zone and trying (but failing) to push through free public transportation. From his office across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster, he taunted the government's economic-reform agenda by hanging out a sign that tracked rising unemployment. Thatcher showed him who was boss, though: she abolished the GLC in 1986, leaving Livingstone unemployed.

It was a wiser Livingstone who ran for mayor in the first ever direct election, in 2000. At first Tony Blair's "New Labour" Party wanted nothing to do with the Old Labour relic; Blair said he would be a "disaster" as mayor. Livingstone won as an Independent and set out to tackle London's dilapidated transportation network. The London Underground showed little improvement, but Londoners gave the mayor generally high marks for his hefty "congestion charge" fees, then 5 pounds ($10), now 8 pounds ($16), on private cars entering central London and for upgrading the bus system (there are twice as many bus riders as tube passengers in London). Eventually, with the 2004 election in sight, Livingstone was so popular that Labour had no choice but to take him back into the party. He won with 55 percent of the vote.

The mayor's second term has been rockier than his first. Livingstone was part of the team that won the right for London to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, and he earned a Giuliani-like aura for his handling of the suicide-bomb attacks on London's transportation system in July 2005. But some of his more controversial acts—such as doing a deal with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to supply subsidized fuel for London buses or likening a Jewish newspaper reporter covering him to a "concentration camp guard"—attracted criticism. Livingstone's sheer longevity in office, set against the slow pace of progress in public services, has also begun to take a toll on his popularity. Worse, his administration has been hit with allegations of financial irregularities. Last week the mayor's adviser on racial matters, Lee Jasper, resigned following allegations of impropriety and cronyism, including his friendship with a woman involved in two organizations that received funds from the mayor's office. (Jasper denied any wrongdoing.)

Enter Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Like Livingstone—of whom the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock once said, "Everyone likes Ken, except the people who know him"—the 43-year-old onetime editor of the Spectator magazine is a genial but polarizing figure. An Oxford-educated classics scholar who once lost a senior Conservative Party post for allegedly lying about an extramarital affair (the accusations were "an inverted pyramid of piffle," he said), Johnson sometimes seems remarkably blasé about the mayor's race. He was once asked how he thought London had improved since his childhood. He seemed flummoxed by the question. Someone in the audience helpfully yelled, "Restaurants!" Johnson perked up: "Yes, you eat well. Thank you! Who would have dreamed you could go into Tesco and buy mange-tout, or your newsagent for mango juice?"

Johnson's bumbling is the stuff of legend. During a celebrity soccer game—perhaps confusing the sport with rugby—Johnson once charged into a German opponent, hurling him into the air. No less an authority than Arnold Schwarzenegger has commented on Johnson's shambling elocution. As the California governor listened to Johnson try to lay out his vision for London, an open mike caught Schwarzenegger whispering, "He's fumbling all over the place." And yet "Ken Leaving Soon," as Boris calls the mayor, is in trouble; the latest polls show him and Johnson running neck and neck. "I think there's no particular disgrace in making people laugh," Johnson says, adding quickly, "I'm a deeply serious person." What both Johnson and Livingstone are really serious about is winning; only one of them can have the last laugh on May 1.