The 2012 London mayoral election is fast approaching. On Thursday 3 May millions of Londoners will vote to elect their new mayor - and incumbent Conservative Boris Johnson is seeking re-election for a second term. Our reporter Alex Stevenson managed to secure an audience with Boris for the day on a recent campaign trip to Croydon. Here's how Alex's eventful day with Boris panned out:
Something tells me to expect the unexpected when heading off on the campaign trail with Boris Johnson. And yet, braced as I am for the utterly improbable, even I don't expect my morning with the mayor to begin as it does.
Boris is 20 minutes early.
"Oh, we're usually on time," his minder, a sort of distracted nanny figure, tells me after their arrival at East Croydon station. She says it's only when London's transport system fails that they fall behind schedule. As chairman of Transport for London this is the mayor's responsibility, I point out, mostly in jest. Today the capital's transport infrastructure has held up to the test.
Boris is strangely anonymous at first, accompanied by just his minder and a press officer. East Croydon's commuters are so focused on getting from A to B they don't seem to have spotted this most recognisable of politicians. Even in the nearest coffee place, where I'm to have a quick interview with the man who aims to earn a second term as London mayor, only a few people realise who's just walked in.
"It's going to be very, very tough," he says when we're sat down, looking neither animated nor amused. "This is a long campaign. It's already been going on, it seems, since the beginning of time. There's a long time to go."
He looks a bit more drawn than usual. His features appear paler, more exhausted. "There's a real risk that London will go backwards," he adds. Boris appears genuinely concerned by the prospect. "You could go backwards to a high-taxing, wasteful regime that we saw under Ken Livingstone, or you can go forwards with a positive agenda for the city."
Now all he has to do is persuade the people of Croydon that he's the man to take London forward. I show him an online poll on the website of a local newspaper which puts him at 58%, to Ken Livingstone's 25%. "Let's have a look," he says, peering at my phone. "You're romping home," I tell him. But he isn't buying it. "What's the polling sample?" he asks suspiciously. Beyond telling him that I tried voting twice and the percentages didn't change (the first step in any poll's reliability), I haven't the foggiest.
Other journalists and photographers have been appearing during this brief hiatus, which sees Boris briefed on the local political situation by Steve O'Connell, Greater London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton. Finally, we head off. With a gaggle of media types now tagging along, this is more like the classic electioneering circus. A few elderly coffee-drinkers shake Boris' hand, wishing him well. Groups of young people seem to just like shouting out his name to see him look round. "Hi, how're you doing," he says, a little non-committal. Walking around with Boris like this is like being at the eye of the storm. Only, actually, there is no eye. It's just as hectic here, if not more so, than everywhere else.
The Boris typhoon arrives in Croydon College. "I think I'm going to open a new bit of it," Boris had told me. After snipping open a red ribbon he makes a brief speech to the gathered students and delighted members of staff. "I declare this rotunda - and no one could be rotunder than I - open!"
You get the drift. We all know the Boris brand by now - lashings of irreverence, dashes of esoteric wit, rhetorical flourishes of the kind that ought to have died out with Bertie Wooster, and an occasional spat. He makes a joke about Croydon's beautiful women, then adds that he "mustn't be sexist" and includes Croydon's beautiful men - "Philip Green? er, no" - in the list. It is in these sorts of moments when Boris seems most liberated from the oppressive influence of his campaign strategists.
Political pragmatism requires that he be kept on a tight leash, for the 2012 race for City Hall is, already, not without its controversies - Ken's unexpected publically weeping while watching his campaign video last week, for example. "I've said to Ken Livingstone I'm sure he's not the only person who's capable of shedding hot tears of real feeling at the prospect of his return to power in London," Boris says when I mention this. He sounds very pleased with himself at thinking that one up.
Then there's the time two weeks ago when Boris, enraged by Ken's repeated jibes on a live radio debate about his tax affairs, unleashed a foul-mouthed tirade against his rival in a lift afterwards. He doesn't deny it.
"That was really because Ken Livingstone continued in saying something that he knew wasn't true," Boris says, now the voice of calm and reason. "He often does that," he continues conversationally. "I'd already corrected him in a polite way privately about something he was saying about my tax affairs which was completely untrue. He said it again and I was obliged to correct him in a robust way."
What an excellent political euphemism for repeatedly using the f-word. Such are the benefits of having a charming personality -it becomes easier to find forgiveness for such transgressions.
Boris embarks on a tour of the college. After losing his entourage for a bit - "they went thataway!" I'm cheerfully told - I find the Conservative candidate in what appears to be a hairdressing class. "Do you do men's hair?" I ask them. "We do," they say. But Boris - as ever sporting his trademark unruly hairstyle, is quick to intervene. "I knew you were going to ask that," he says quickly. "The answer is unfortunately I don't have time, otherwise I would happily submit."
We move on to Boris' next activity, cooking a crepes suzette. He is ably assisted by Ben, a top performer at the college. The sight of the sizzling butter, sugar and lemon juice sparks off the candidate's imagination. "This is probably the sort of thing they used in medieval siege warfare, isn't it?" he says, delighted. "They would have poured this on the invaders." That would be a neat revenge on the pesky journalists, myself included, crouching below the table. "Delicious!" he declares with gusto, passing judgement on his handiwork. "What percentage of it was yours, Boris?" I ask. "About five," he replies, grinning.
The students are charmed. "He's amazing," a couple of them tell me. "He's so funny." But one is less impressed. She couldn't help but laugh at his chatter earlier, but in private she's hostile. "Why wouldn't you vote for him?" I ask. "Just – no," she replies.
Very few of the students I meet are prepared to admit to being bona fide Boris supporters. They like him, yes. They seemed dazzled by his celebrity. But few of them are prepared to give him their vote - for many of them, their first ever.
The gulf between the behaviour of these teenagers and their voting habits is marked. One young man who persuaded Boris to have his picture taken with him turned out to have helped on the phone banks for Ken's campaign. "I trust him," he admitted, talking about Boris. But he still says he'd prefer Labour's man to get in, all the same.
Croydon's students just don't seem clear of what kind of a mayor he actually is. Perhaps it is how noticeably different he is to them that creates a barrier. Boris is, after all, an eccentrically affable old Etonian, a Conservative through and through. The kind of politician who looks after the wealthy.
"Obviously I'm in favour of rebalancing the economy," he says, "but banking and financial services is an industry that generates huge income for this city."
The financial sector employs about 640,000 people. Boris' defence of the City is one based on those on small and modest incomes, not the richest. "They are vital," he says. "They have all the rights of everybody else in this city to be protected from economic policies that would be extremely damaging for London."
"But for people to call for hanging a banker a week when that could affect jobs for people on modest jobs - it's simply irresponsible," he insists. "It's grandstanding, and no, I'm not going to support it."
There are actually very few issues of substance discussed during the morning's visit. Preparing delicious desserts, snipping ribbons and the like don't require much partisan cut-and-thrust. Boris seems much happier to talk about the bigger picture after taking his leave of Croydon. "I love it, I absolutely love it," he says of the job he's held for four years. "I think the biggest surprise is that a central government should be so generous to the point of foolhardiness in creating a devolved authority of such power."
He agrees that the mayoralty "needs to develop" further, but thinks the natural drift is towards further devolution. Just so long as David Cameron doesn't ask him to attend a 'mayoral cabinet' meeting in No 10. "I told the prime minister the other day - he can call a mayor's cabinet but I'm not going to it!" A cheeky laugh follows. He has genuinely amused himself, so much so he feels the need to bactrack a bit. "What I mean," he says meekly, "is I don't want the mayoralty to be taken over or controlled by central government."
Rather suddenly, 18-year-old Jamie Jobanuptra emerges out of nowhere. He is deeply concerned with the coalition government's plans to expand its internet snooping powers. Boris, thwarted after having been so close to avoiding any unpleasant contretemps, appears stumped.
"I'm afraid it's not something that's top of the agenda for the mayoral election," he says. He is in favour of a "free internet" but gets pinned down when Jamie repeatedly demands that he "scrutinise" home secretary Theresa May. "I will scrutinise Theresa May," Boris concedes.
His entourage finally come to his aid and they beat a hasty retreat, off to their next engagement on yet another very busy day. The whirlwind subsides. I look at my watch. Oh dear - unlike the mayor, I am running very late indeed. I will blame the Tube.