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World London’s charismatic mayor moves to the front lines of election battle

London Mayor Boris Johnson, left, seen as the heir-presumptive to lead the Conservative Party if Prime Minister David Cameron falls in next month’s U.K. elections, jousts on British television Sunday with Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband, right.

Jeff Overs/BBC Handout/Reuters

There they were sitting side by side on the same brown couch, the two men who covet David Cameron's job most.

On the right was Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party that is tied neck-and-neck with Mr. Cameron's Conservatives in opinion polls, with just over a week remaining before Britain votes in an election that is at once wildly unpredictable and wholly uninspiring. Neither Mr. Miliband nor Mr. Cameron has yet won the attention, let alone affection, of this United Kingdom, making it almost certain there will be a hung parliament, and rival attempts to cobble together a functioning government, following May 7 elections to the House of Commons.

While Mr. Cameron, as the incumbent prime minister, will be given the first chance to try and form something like a working coalition, odds makers – by a slight margin – believe the likely shape of the next parliament means Mr. Miliband is more likely to inhabit No. 10 Downing Street when the deal-making is done.

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Which is where Mr. Miliband's couch mate on Sunday morning television comes in: With the election hanging in the balance, Mr. Cameron made the politically risky move of calling on London Mayor Boris Johnson to play a bigger role in the Conservative campaign. Mr. Cameron said Mr. Johnson – who is seeking a seat in parliament while retaining, for now, his post as mayor – was his "star striker," and said he hoped the charismatic Mr. Johnson would help win over crucial blocs of undecided voters.

But Mr. Johnson is also widely seen as the most likely replacement for Mr. Cameron should the Conservatives fail to hang on to power after May 7. His brief appearance alongside Mr. Miliband on BBC's The Andrew Marr Show did little to dampen such talk.

Mr. Johnson, while being interviewed separately, led off by suggesting the election was already lost – referring to an incoming Labour government, before Mr. Marr reminded him that was only one possible outcome of the campaign.

Joined on the couch by Mr. Miliband, the two politicians engaged in a spirited verbal exchange, often talking over each other in an effort to score points. Mr. Johnson took obvious delight in pointing out that the Labour leader – who casts himself as a working class champion, promising to raise taxes on Britain's richest citizens in order to fund better social programs – had gone to the same primary school he had, and that both men attended Oxford University, "a fact you won't hear Ed Miliband admitting very often."

Mr. Miliband, meanwhile, needled the mayor about his transparent ambitions to lead the Conservatives. "If you become leader of the Tory party, I would get rid of Lynton, if I were you. Honestly, he doesn't do much for you," Mr. Miliband said with a grin, referring to the Conservative Party's chief election strategist, Lynton Crosby.

"I have a premonition that this is things to come," Mr. Marr said of the exchange, in another acknowledgment of Mr. Johnson's anticipated rise.

There was no clear winner in the exchange, but both men gave the kind of off-the-cuff performance that the choreographed Mr. Cameron – to the dismay of increasingly worried Conservatives – doesn't deliver. Despite the deadlock in the polls, Mr. Cameron has refused several invitations to meet Mr. Miliband in a a head-to-head debate, instead agreeing only to a single seven-party television encounter at the outset of the campaign. That format left little room for direct confrontation between the two main leaders.

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Mr. Johnson's televised clash with Mr. Miliband came a day after The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that supports the Conservative Party, reported that "cabinet ministers and senior Conservative backbenchers" had already begun discussions about swiftly anointing Mr. Johnson as the party's new leader should Mr. Cameron fail to lead it to a majority government.

"That is both nonsense and, may I say, absolutely trivial by comparison with the choice that this country has to make in 11 days' time," Mr. Johnson said of the report, rounding back into his pitch for Britain to vote Conservative. However, the mayor managed to electioneer for 12 minutes on live television without mentioning Mr. Cameron's name once.

The most recent poll of polls (taking into account work done by nine different polling agencies) shows Labour and the Conservatives both with about 33 per cent of the vote, each on track to win around 270 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.

While support levels for both Labour and the Conservatives have been static throughout the campaign, polls show that British voters are getting increasingly used to the idea that Mr. Miliband – previously viewed as a drag on his party's fortunes – could become prime minister.

With the polls so tight, Mr. Cameron is not alone in running a cautious campaign. Five years after then-Labour leader Gordon Brown saw his run for re-election torpedoed by an open microphone that caught him referring to a woman he met on the campaign trail as "bigoted," all the main party leaders, including Mr. Miliband, are running choreographed efforts that leave little room for surprise or genuine interactions with voters.

Which made the televised exchange between Mr. Miliband and Mr. Johnson something of a breath of fresh air. "Best television of the week," an amused Mr. Marr said, leaning back at the end of the show.

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But, in perhaps another harbinger of things to come, his guests wouldn't stop quarreling even as their host was trying to say farewell to viewers. "Shut up now, please," Mr. Marr eventually had to plead.

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