The only way for Labour to handle Ken is to beat him

`Given Blair's wider dominance, he has not been an equally successful control freak in his party'
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LABOUR'S HIGH command has been thrown into more of a tizzy over what to do with Ken Livingstone than over any other issue since Tony Blair became leader more than five years ago. Over recent days senior cabinet ministers have talked in private of little else. Members of the selection panel are in a tight-lipped state, scared to say anything public, or much in private. Probably they will allow Livingstone to throw his cap into the mayoral ring, but the outcome of their deliberations tomorrow is not certain. The minds of leading Blairites have changed several times in recent weeks. They could change again.

But they cannot change again too often, as time is about to run out. There is no getting away from it. An unmovable deadline looms and whatever decision is made tomorrow will change the course of politics in ways that are difficult to predict.

Normally, when faced with really awkward decisions this far from triumphalist Government chooses not to make them at all. Instead, a report into the pros and cons of the issue is commissioned, debate is encouraged, and a senior politician from another party is appointed to review matters further, while the decision itself is kicked long into the comforting mists of the second term.

Fox-hunting is getting this treatment at the moment. Electoral reform has been the subject of a report and a lengthy debate. So have the euro and the future of the Lords. Debates on these issues could go on for years. Ideally, in the current situation, ministers would commission a report from Chris Patten on the pros and cons of Ken Livingstone and postpone the election for London's mayor until the report was published in 2003. By which time Livingstone would have been made head of London Zoo, and grown far too old and content to contemplate another job.

But, on this occasion, the leadership is faced with a wretched, unmovable deadline. In a way that has been understated, even in the current frenzied atmosphere, it is in a nightmarish situation. Some Blairite strategists would still prefer Livingstone to stand as an independent, rather than as the official Labour candidate. In my view this underestimates the serious schism such a scenario would produce in the London Labour Party and beyond. This would be martyred Ken forced out by those control freaks. He would probably win, and form an alternative Labour party from his power base as mayor of London. The Blairites, having created an electable centre-left coalition from the ashes of the Eighties, would have brought about a new and potentially dangerous split.

On the other hand, if Ken Livingstone were to become Labour's official candidate there would be the farcical and politically dishonest situation of Tony Blair and the party machine having to campaign for someone whom they did not support.

How have they got into this mess? Or, as one senior Labour figure put it to me the other day, how can Tony Blair see off Milosevic in Belgrade but allow Livingstone to run rings around him in London? The answers are complex and tell us much about the Government and the wider political situation.

One point has been entirely overlooked, having been obscured by the excitement over potential candidates. The London mayor will not be an especially powerful figure. Not for the first time, Blairite caution has rebounded on itself. Fearing headlines about a return to the old GLC, the Government gave the newly elected London body no tax-raising powers. Also, although the mayor will be judged by the quality of public transport, he or she will inherit the precarious financial structure for the London Underground that has been devised by the Government.

Who would want such a job? For a long time, Frank Dobson did not. I am told by one of his closest allies that fears about the powers, or lack of them, were the main reason for his reluctance to stand. His subsequent delay in declaring his candidacy has left him with little time, and much ground to make up. Inadequate mayoral powers were also a factor in dissuading other dynamic figures, including one other cabinet minister, from standing.

At the same time they make Livingstone seem a much less threatening figure. Londoners can have the charm and independence of mind that Livingstone possesses, without being threatened with more tax increases - except for congestion-charging, for which there is widespread support anyway. If the Government had dared to make the mayor more powerful, Livingstone would have been seen by Londoners as a much riskier choice.

This does not mean that Blair and his entourage are a bunch of control freaks. If anything, the Livingstone saga should help to destroy the mythology of "control freakery" which, along with "spin doctoring", has been the great red herring of this Government. Of course, having been brought up on four election defeats the Blairites in Downing Street and Millbank seek control of the party, as they have every right to do. When the leadership lacked control in the early Eighties, the media crucified it. If William Hague were in a stronger position he would be a control freak, too, probably blocking Lord Archer's mayoral bid for starters. When leaders are in a politically strong position, they get their way. When they are not, they have more difficulty. Given Blair's wider political dominance, he has not been an especially successful control freak in his party. The NEC elections have not always gone his way (Livingstone beat Peter Mandelson for an NEC seat in the immediate aftermath of landslide), and he is still licking his wounds from big back-bench revolts over welfare reform. Now he has been unable to control the Livingstone phenomenon.

This is partly down to Ken Livingstone himself. He is a formidable and talented politician, who defies crude caricature. His record at the GLC in near-impossible circumstances was nowhere near as bad as opponents suggest and his views now are hard to categorise. He supports the euro, backed the war in Kosovo and is opposed to big tax increases for Middle England. He was, for example, a critic of John Smith's alternative budget in 1992. There is a small part of Blair that has a sneaking admiration for Livingstone, although it is not true that Livingstone was offered a post in government and turned it down. Had he been offered a job, he would have taken it. It is also the case that Livingstone's career is scattered with political misjudgements and indiscretions, and these would have a disastrous impact if played out by him in the exalted position of London's first mayor.

Inadequate mayoral powers, the inability of Labour's so-called control freaks to control and the complex political personality of Ken Livingstone are the reasons for the mess. At such a late stage, there is a third way for the Labour leadership, which is to allow Livingstone to stand, and to beat him. It is a risky strategy but, to revive a phrase from a real control freak, there is no alternative.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'