If the capital wants a human dynamo for its mayor, then the North Southwark and Bermondsey MP looks like the man for the job. As I walked to the Tube with the dynamo's unshaven press officer, the man admits that he tried to not spend all day with his boss. Apparently, that would often mean 18 hours of work. "Simon's incredible," says the press officer. "He can leave colleagues half his age in a mangled heap on the floor after some days."
He may lack the dry wit and distinctive persona of Ken or the smooth-talking assurance of Steve Norris, but the plummy-voiced Hughes is a breath of fresh air in the race for capital's mayor. The enthusiasm of this 52-year-old former barrister knows no end. "Come on, you must have some more questions for me," Hughes implores while we wait in the television studio, playfully punching my arm as if he were back in public school. It's like playing ball with a puppy – regardless of how many times you sling the ball away, the puppy drops it at your feet, eager for more. After an hour or so, endearment may give way to mild irritation.
So what does the former Lib Dem home affairs spokesman and pretender to the party throne (he came second to Charles Kennedy in 1999) have to offer to the capital's populace – and what, frankly are his chances? He is yet to fully commit on his manifesto for the election, which takes place in June, but given the current political climate, Hughes has a good chance of coming second to Livingstone or, just maybe, actually winning the thing.
He has been helped by the fact that Steve Norris accepted the chairman's role at Jarvis last November. Given that Jarvis is part of the Tube Lines PPP consortium, Norris' candidacy is being hampered by the suggestion of a conflict of interest. "He's made his own bed and he has to lie in it," is Hughes' bland assessment. Well, perhaps it's in his interest to keep Norris as a weakened rival, rather than go for the jugular and call for him to be replaced by a stronger contender. "Every Conservative MP who I have met regarded his position at Jarvis as giving him difficulty. It precludes him from commenting on a whole set of issues.
It also appears to suggest that he really is not concentrating all his efforts on being mayor." Norris also gets a bit of a drubbing by Hughes for an apparent no-show at last month's official launch of the capital's 2012 Olympic bid. "I didn't see him. You'd have thought he would have popped in, even for E E five minutes," he says gleefully. "Out there on the ground it doesn't feel like a heavyweight or serious campaign."
Hughes also sees chinks in Livingstone's armour, given his official readmittance to the Labour Party fold last week. Perhaps his maverick charm may dull when he enters the straitjacket of the increasingly unpopular Blair administration. And then there is the fact that Blair repeatedly warned Londoners not to vote for Livingstone in the last election.
Take your Bellways or Barratts and sit them down and let’s look at the sites and let’s come to some sort of deal
There is also the system of proportional representation that is to be used in the poll. This may help Hughes, because if no candidate receives 50% of the vote in the first round, Londoners' second preferences are taken into account to decide on the outright winner. Hughes is adamant he will receive more second choices than Norris.
On policy, Hughes launches straight into housing, which he sees as Livingstone's big failure. Although he admits that there are no "magic wands" to solve the drastic lack of affordable housing in London, Hughes would plan to build 30,000 a year, half of them affordable, if elected. At the time of speaking, this was 7000 more than Ken – however by an uncanny coincidence, the mayor raised his target to 30,000 the following Tuesday.
How is Hughes going to find the workforce and the sites to accommodate these houses? The problem as he sees it is the lack of a working relationship between the borough councils and the developers. "The bilateral discussion between local authorities and developers are painstaking, arduous and over-complicated," he says. Instead, he advocates direct mayoral intervention to draw up strategic plans for London boroughs for the next five to 10 years with targets on numbers needed for each borough. "Take your Bellways or Barratts and sit them down as mayor, with the north London boroughs, say, and let's look at where are the sites and let's come to some sort of deal." Hughes also advocates "imaginative solutions", such as building over supermarket car parks or shops, as well as concentrating housing near train stations.
Out there on the ground, norris’ doesn’t seem like a heavyweight or serious campaign
So what of the famous Thames Gateway development? Hughes cites his experience of working with the London Development Corporation in the 1980s during his first years as a local MP; this, he says, gives him vital experience in creating communities from scratch. The key question he raises, which he says he has yet to answer for himself, is how enough jobs will be created for the people who are moving there. "I think the answer is something to do with modern light industries such as are in the Thames M4 corridor. It should be possible, given the transport links to the Continent."
Hughes has yet to fully flesh out his views on the infrastructure challenge set by both Thames Gateway and the 2012 Olympic bid – both are generally thought to depend on whether Crossrail ever gets off the ground. He thinks the government should get on with it. "They have got to get the bill through parliament this year," he says, adding that part of Crossrail could be finished in time for the Olympics, despite the government's assertions to the contrary. "You could get the core part of Crossrail, from Paddington through to Liverpool Street and Stratford, done by 2011," he says.
The danger is that Hughes, who has held environment, health and education portfolios during his 20-odd year parliamentary career, offers so many views that the voters get confused. We touch on corporate manslaughter, PFI, the congestion charge (he will keep it but not extend it to Kensington and Chelsea), the need for a new conference centre in London and his backing for the closure of entire Tube lines to speed up work.
Personal effectsAre you anti-tall buildings? No. I supported the Shard of Glass. I just don’t think they are a magic solution. Most people prefer to be in a community on the ground, not in the sky. I am not as absolutist about them as some are.
What’s your favourite building in London? Southwark Cathedral or Westminster Hall. Of the new buildings in London I’m a big fan of the Laban Centre.
And least favourite? Centrepoint.
Is the Scottish parliament building a waste of money? I honestly don’t know. I haven’t seen it yet. Lord Steel knows more about that than I do.
Is your yellow taxi a gimmick? If it is, it’s been a gimmick for many years now. It’s a good vehicle for London – it’s nippy, has got a good turning circle. I suppose it also makes a good statement.