`I can't see anyone who would be a better mayor'

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IS TREVOR PHILLIPS the man Tony Blair would like to be London's first elected mayor? The man himself laughs and says he would be interested to know. So would a lot of other people, since this week he came as close to throwing his hat into the ring as it is possible to do without quitting his job and campaigning full time for it.

"I want to be mayor of London," he said. "I think it would be the best job in the world. At the moment I can't see anybody who could do it better than me. But one lives in hope."

Mr Phillips, 45, has been in favour of an elected mayor for the decade and more he has been reporting on London's problems. A former president of the National Union of Students, he became head of current affairs at London Weekend Television from 1988 to 1994 before leaving to start an independent production business. He has a lot of ideas about the capital's policing and transport.

But he has one problem in trying to win selection as the Labour Party candidate: his two daughters, 11, and 14, attend North London Collegiate, a private school. Yet on this issue, Mr Phillips, instead of muttering an embarrassed plea to change the subject, could hardly be more robust.

When the idea came up, his Indian wife, raised in France where everyone attends the neighbourhood school, was horrified. It was not, he says, a decision "lightly taken" - but the choice was clear.

The designated secondary school in Haringey is White Hart Lane Comprehensive, where he and his sister had been pupils and where the number of children with five GCSE passes in this week's league tables was just 14 per cent. "Just one in seven, so six out of seven did not get to GCSE level."

"And in the year my older daughter would have gone there, 1995, the proportion of children getting five GCSE passes was 4 per cent."

He was being invited to tell his children he was sending them to a place "where I know you are going to fail".

"This wasn't somewhere where working class children might suffer but middle class ones would do okay. Something was so drastically wrong you are effectively saying to your children I don't care if you fail to fulfil your potential."

There seemed to be two other options. One was to do as his own parents had done, with his mother working in a sweatshop and his father a night- shift postal worker on pounds 24-per-week, and send his children to Guyana to be educated at Queen's College, Georgetown.

The second, given that he would "not dream of doing anything else than keep my children with me", was to cast around for the best available option in London, which meant, since he was able to afford it, a fee-paying school.

"People will say why didn't you find a nice grant-maintained school, move across the borough borders or whatever. I have no particular quarrel with people who do that. But once you say that you can't put your children in your local neighbourhood school, then whatever else you do is irrelevant.

"The thing that upsets me about this is that people raise it about me as if I have committed a crime ... The issue is not whether it makes me into some kind of bloated plutocrat but why most London parents are confronted with the situation where they are asked to see their children fail and smile about it."

Nor is he without potential allies, especially as children from black families are morelikely to fail in such schools. His old friend and near neighbour Bernie Grant, also educated in Guyana, astonished MPs by supporting Harriet Harman in her crisis over sending her son to a grammar school.

"This goes beyond the old left-right divide. It's really an argument between people who want to confront a real problem and people who want to pretend it doesn't exist and stick to the old slogans.

"I haven't been caught on Clapham Common. No one is questioning my share dealings. I haven't been caught with an actress on a futon. Yet somehow this thing - that I want to do the best for my children, makes me somehow unsuitable for public life. It's just outrageous."

The new mayor will not be directly responsible for state education. But Mr Phillips has thought a lot about it and is confident that he would be able to influence policy.

He strongly approves of measures by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, to give head teachers better incentives and improve the fabric of London schools, but does not shrink from saying that you need to borrowsome of the private sector's management skills.

On transport, Mr Phillips has big ideas for the use of congestion-charging powers to keep cars out of London and even introduce bans.

Above all, he wants to redraw the map of London's Underground and bus network to provide for south of the river - reducing commercial and residential property prices by spreading activity currently concentrated on the north bank of the Thames.

But all this is for another day. He knows that Ken Livingstone, whatever the efforts to exclude him, remains attractive to Labour activists on the left and some in the trendy non-political middle class who would like to see London's mayor provide a check on the Prime Minister. He dismisses any notion he is some "proxy for Tony Blair".

"Ken can compete on what he believes," he says. "What I would say, as one of Ken's friends and admirers, is that you shouldn't look back. You shouldn't go back. I don't think it would be good for him and I don't think it would be good for London."

Whether Mr Phillips can pull it off remains to be seen. It may depend in part on whether he can break one of the few remaining taboos in late 20th-century Labour Party culture.