There's only one way to stop Mr Livingstone now

`Mo Mowlam and Frank Dobson would have a much better than even chance of beating Ken'
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KEN LIVINGSTONE was in sparkling form in Bournemouth yesterday, signing copies of John Carvel's biography of him, joking - quite correctly, as it happens - that the book contains as many reasons for Labour to exclude him from the London mayoralty as it does for allowing him to run, and that an ever-present television crew was there on orders from Labour HQ to film anyone rash enough to buy a copy.

It was nothing of the sort, of course. Instead the crew was from Channel 4, and they were making a documentary on the making of London's mayor. Livingstone is a star of the conference fringe, a media celebrity like few others in his party. Image, no one now needs to be told, counts for a lot in modern politics, and suddenly the prospect of a serious Livingstone candidacy for one of the most powerful jobs in Britain is looking vividly real.

Here's a paradox. On Tuesday, confidence, electoral, intellectual and ideological, was - justly - the motif of the day. Blair's coalition looms ever wider. Here John Edmonds, one of the Government's most persistent trade union critics, is positively ecstatic about his speech; there Blair uses it as a platform from which to launch an emphatic appeal to one-nation Tories to come and "join us". In Labour, the head has never been more closely connected to the body; the party carries all before it, convinced that Blair has won the battle of ideas. There are criticisms within the party, of course, but they are largely of detail, uttered by candid friends. Even Ken Livingstone, the one charismatic figure from the old left, is obliged to play lip-service (at least some of the time) to most of the new orthodoxies.

And yet over the next fortnight the party faces a distinctly old-fashioned problem - that of Livingstone's absolute, unshakeable determination to run for the job of London's mayor. It's what many ministers mutter and shake their heads about when they are away from the television cameras. It's no doubt too much to say that this super-confident Government seems, when it comes to Livingstone, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. But the problem has so far defied an easy solution. Tony Blair is quintessentially the man with the plan. But even he has yet to come up with a solution without risking a heavy political price.

So far, the likeliest solution is the use of an equally old-fashioned method to tackle the problem - the use of what in another context would have been called "administrative means": the weeding out of Livingstone's candidacy by a party vetting-committee before the race begins. A great deal of romantic cant is talked about this by supporters of keeping Livingstone in the race - much of it, it cannot be said too often, by middle-class chatterers who would not have dreamt of voting Labour in the Eighties, largely because of what Livingstone and his allies represented.

In fact Livingstone has done quite enough for him to be excluded - say - by a party committee selecting by-election candidates, let alone a job as important as that of the new mayor. My colleague David Aaronovitch has documented several of the reasonably consistent ways in which Livingstone has criticised the Government's economic policy - rather a basic aspect of its programme, you might have thought - and called for Gordon Brown to be removed from the job of Chancellor. And this leaves aside the fact that he is at odds with the Government over its - for London - central policy on the Tube. Or that he has never - so far as I know - recanted, as, say, Chris Patten and the other Tory wets did after several years of Margaret Thatcher, from his views when Labour was consistently losing elections with his help.

But when it comes to low politics that isn't quite the point, which is that vetting may prove to be very messy indeed. It's impossible to know for sure whether he will stand as an independent and the hints over the past few weeks that he will do so - not least the fact that his clever "pledge card", mimicking the one with which Labour won in 1997 - contains no mention whatever of his party, could just be bluff to frighten the party leadership to let him run as candidate. But it would be crazy to bank on Livingstone's loyalty by assuming that he will not. Yes, he'll lose his job as MP. But the idea that as attractive a figure as Livingstone would be unable to earn a good living - always supposing he didn't win the mayoralty - is whistling in the dark. He isn't exactly, at 55, contemplating a long-term political career that he would be putting at risk.

And, given that a majority of party members in London would prefer Livingstone over the other declared candidates - including the highly competent Nick Raynsford, who will enter the race today - an independent candidacy might cause a row that would be rather more than the four-day wonder fondly imagined by some. It's not just that the charges of control-freakery will be redoubled. If, for example, he ran his own slate for the Greater London Assembly; if, worse, some London Labour members joined his campaign, Labour might be in for a messy period of high-profile expulsions, reminiscent of the battles fought against Militant in the Eighties.

This partly arises, of course, because two of the Cabinet heavyweights, Mo Mowlam and Frank Dobson, who would have a much better than even chance of beating Livingstone, have made it clear they don't want the job and therefore won't do it. This is assumed to be rock-hard, unavoidable fact. But why? For Mowlam is hugely and justly popular, and would be a wonderful figure to represent London at home and abroad; Dobson has proved to be a skilful Health Secretary, showing backbone in his dealings with civil servants, not to mention the Treasury, and much more of a moderniser than was thought before the election. It's true that they want to stay in the Cabinet. Dobson, in particular, was always in favour of big city mayors, but not ones directly elected. But are they not missing a trick; missing, even, what the new politics are about? London's mayor will be a big figure, with an even bigger direct mandate - voted in by a larger electorate than any other politician in Europe, with huge media exposure and the power that comes with it. Trevor Phillips and Nick Raynsford are both excellent candidates, but it is highly unlikely that either of them would beat Livingstone in an internal Labour contest. The truth is that a front-line Labour figure should take on Livingstone. The failure to find one is a failure of the collective will of the Government.

It may not necessarily be a long-term catastrophe. I suspect Blair would rather Livingstone ran as an independent candidate than as a Labour one; New Labour would thus remain intact, if bruised, in London. Moreover the new-found cosiness between Livingstone and Jeffrey Archer - likely to be named as the Tory candidate tomorrow - will surely not survive the contest, once Conservative Central Office turns the heat on to Livingstone. The point about all this is that the context with Livingstone cannot be ducked. It can be won, but there is no doubt which would be the less messy way of doing it.