Can taxi row unseat Mayor Mallon?

Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon has prided himself on being straight-talking - a man who won't mince his words.

It has probably helped him be elected and re-elected as the town's mayor.

But could his "straight-talking" be about to cost him his job?

Image caption Mayor Mallon says his reported comments have been taken out of context

The problem is a series of tapes made by a (now former) friend and taxi driver Mohammed Bashir.

They are of conversations between Mr Bashir and Mr Mallon about an ongoing row between the mayor and some of the town's taxi trade.

You can hear and read detailed extracts on the Sunday Sun's website.

I won't go into great detail, but suffice to say there is a lot of strong language from Mr Mallon, and some disparaging remarks about the town's taxi drivers and a council officer.

It has led to Ray Mallon being accused of sexism and racism - charges he firmly denies.

But some of his political opponents in the current mayoral election are scenting blood.

On Friday - ahead of the publication of the conversations - Ray Mallon publicly apologised unreservedly for a sexual slur he made about a female council officer.

He says he was using language that he thought Mr Bashir could relate to, but he says all the dealings he has had were above board and transparent.

But his Liberal Democrat rival Chris Foote-Wood says the wider contents of the conversations published on Sunday show Mr Mallon is unfit for office.

He questions the judgement of a mayor who admits spending up to 10 hours a week in conversations with Mr Bashir about the dispute with the taxi trade.

Questions have also been raised about whether the mayor correctly declared his relationship with Mr Bashir in meetings about the town's taxis.

Mr Mallon says his comments reported in the Sunday Sun tape extracts about that have been taken out of context.

And he denies he is guilty of anything other than using industrial and inappropriate language during what he thought were private conversations.

But Chris Foote-Wood says he will be making a complaint against Mr Mallon for breaches of the local government code of conduct.

Uncompromising style

So how serious is the threat to his re-election chances?

It's certainly not the kind of controversy that does him any favours. He admits that he did consider resigning.

And in a way, it's surprising his straight-talking hasn't got him into more trouble during his seven years as mayor.

But his uncompromising style was part of his appeal to Middlesbrough voters in the first place.

It's what's made him of one of the most well-known local authority leaders in the country.

Are they going to be put off now?

And then there are the alternatives.

Image caption The mayor will face three competing party politicians on polling day

The timing of this row might seem to be the worst possible - just days before voters go to the polls.

But had it broken any earlier, there might have been more time for a strong anti-Mallon Independent candidate to emerge.

Instead we know the mayor will face three party politicians competing to be that alternative.

Chris Foote-Wood for the Lib Dems is confident he can defeat Mr Mallon, and has been the most strident in his criticism so far.

Main threat

The Conservative candidate Lloyd Cole-Nolan has also condemned the mayor.

He said: "I want the people of Middlesbrough to send him a message that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable, I don't want him to quit or run away, I want the people of Middlesbrough to have a say."

The main threat though should come from Labour - after all this is a town where the party dominated local government before Mr Mallon's election in 2004.

Their candidate Mike Carr has also condemned Mr Mallon and said he should resign. He, like Chris Foote-Wood has made a complaint to the council about the mayor's behaviour. He thinks he has an alternative and better vision for Middlesbrough.

But have any of these rivals really got enough traction and big enough profile to defeat the sitting mayor? Might they fracture the opposition vote?

There may still be more revelations from the secret tape recordings to emerge of course.

But I still suspect the assessment of this contest I made a couple of weeks ago still holds true.

This is Ray Mallon's election to lose, rather than his rivals' to win.

If the worst of the taped revelations have emerged, he will be hopeful he can ride this row out and fight on his record as mayor.

If not, then I am guessing it will be Mr Mallon who decides whether to battle on, or leave the stage.

The Politics Show will be staging a debate between the four mayoral candidates at 1200 BST on 1 May on BBC One.

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