Is Boris Good for the Jews?

Champagne corks were still popping in Boris Johnson's campaign headquarters in the early hours of last Saturday morning, when one of his senior policy advisors, himself Jewish, received a congratulatory message from a prominent Anglo-Jewish leader.

Champagne corks were still popping in Boris Johnson's campaign headquarters in the early hours of last Saturday morning, when one of his senior policy advisors, himself Jewish, received a congratulatory message from a prominent Anglo-Jewish leader.

By helping unseat incumbent London mayor Ken Livingstone, the advisor was gushingly told, "you have done your community a great service."

Of course, none of the Jewish umbrella organizations had officially endorsed any one candidate. Privately, however, Johnson's victory sent a delicious ripple of schadenfreude through certain sections of the community.

His opponent, a veteran left-winger who had run City Hall for eight years, had not enjoyed the easiest relationship with British Jews, tripping from one broiges to another while appearing to relish every moment of it.

There was the time he hosted a controversial Qatar-based Islamic cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had openly justified suicide bombings against Israelis (and has since been banned from entering the United Kingdom). Then he spent 18 long months refusing to apologize for comparing a Jewish journalist to a "concentration camp guard" - a battle in which this consummate political operator managed to roundly humiliate the organized community. And there was his row with India-born Jewish businessman brothers David and Simon Reuben, whom he suggested "could always go back to Iran," not to mention his misguided insistence that the late chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits thought the founding of the Jewish state had been a mistake. And the list goes on.

All of which conspired to rather overshadow community-friendly initiatives - such as the publication of a travel guide to Jewish London, a project initiated by the mayor's office - let alone broader successes, such as lowering the price of travel on the London Underground, or controlling traffic jams through a congestion charge.

But as engaged as they are in politics, Jews don't tend to vote along ethnic lines in London - where most of the community lives - or anywhere else in the U.K. When Conservative MP Johnson, a former journalist famed for witty, if gaffe-prone repartee, appeared last year to show interest in the mayoral race, he seemed little more than a hilarious upper-class twit, a bit too patrician to be trusted with the multicultural capital.

Jewish Labor voters were not going to back a Tory - nor were Jewish liberals going to warm to a man who has made cringe-worthy references to Pickaninnies - simply because he had visited Israel a few times.

In fact, Johnson was something of a cartoon character, best known for his mop of unruly blond hair, his comic turn of phrase on television and the odd marital indiscretion, although people have been warning for years that behind the bumbling buffoonery lay very serious political ambition.

Yet it's not often that the usually sedate world of British local elections sees a battle between two political rivals charismatic enough to be identified by only their first names. Ken v. Boris had everyone fired up.

When I met him last September, on the day he declared his much-anticipated decision to run, Boris was dismissively vague regarding policy, proffering a Rosh Hashanah-themed plate of apple and honey as a hasty diversion when pressed on his views.

"Bollocks to all that," was his succinct response when asked about the tactic of playing one community off against another in the search for votes. His media advisors clutched their heads as he went on to defend the extent of the Israel Defense Forces' actions in the 2006 Lebanon War, cheerfully contradicting his own party's more measured line. But he was puppy-like in his enthusiasm for Israel and overflowing with pride about his Jewish ancestry (he has a Jewish maternal great-grandfather, matched by a Muslim Turkish one on his father's side).

I confess I left our hour-long encounter unsure of whether he could keep his foot out of his mouth long enough to convince a 5.5-million strong electorate to trust him with an 11 billion-pound ($22 billion) budget.

And yet it seems that the hilarious chaos that surrounded him was rather more carefully orchestrated than it seemed. Amazingly, he kept on-message throughout his campaign, even at the cost of dampening some of his personal ebullience. He did the round of the bagel shops and kosher delis in Jewish North London, and met the rabbinical great and good, without once making jokes about bacon sandwiches at bar mitzvahs.

And in the end, Brand Boris won, boosted by his vast amount of personal charm, a fairly feeble negative campaign by his opponent and that most devastating of political phenomena - a public bored with a tired-looking incumbent.

Will Boris be good for the Jews? In as much as Jews get mugged, pay rent and use buses too, that depends whether he can deliver on crime, housing and transport. One thing will cheer the community's hearts: "Boris will definitely not have a Middle East policy," promises a key advisor.

Perhaps now that the drama of the battle is over, what should be of greatest concern is the unprecedented success in last week's local elections of the British National Party, a far-right, unashamedly anti-immigrant and nationalist party. In London, 120,000 people voted for that party's candidate, and nationally they increased their number of local councillors to an even 100.

In the past, they have attempted to cozy up to the Jewish community with the simple tactic of arguing that they hate Muslims more than Jews. A few years ago, they even successfully fielded a nominally Jewish candidate for a local council seat. This hasn't won them sympathy among Anglo-Jewry, but the tide seems to be turning in their favor elsewhere.

Rather appallingly, Boris will preside over a London Assembly, which will contain, for the first time ever, a member of the BNP.

Livingstone might have been ethnically divisive, and Johnson may be an old-school elitist after all. But it's the BNP that poses the greatest danger to tolerant, multicultural, loud and lovable London.

Daniella Peled is foreign editor of The Jewish Chronicle in London.