'People's Mayor' rallies his troops

"OBVIOUSLY, IT was a tough one for me between supporting Ken Livingstone and Peter Stringfellow... but at the last minute I came down in support of Ken."

As dedications of undying political devotion go, it was not exactly unqualified, but comedian Jo Brand launched the great "Let Ken Stand" campaign yesterday with a flash of deadpannery that has become her trademark.

Livingstone and Brand doesn't yet have the same cachet as Morecambe and Wise or even Cannon and Ball, but the Ken and Jo Show got off to a flyer as the pair swapped one-liners sharper than Mr Stringfellow's winkle-pickers.

A collection of the curious and the politically obsessed converged on Westminster Central Hall last night to hear a succession of celebrities improvise around the theme of why Tony is rotten to Ken.

"Whose Party Is It Anyway?", a game in which Ken's fans attempt to persuade Millbank that he is not the anti-Christ, was performed ably by old stagers including the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, Drop the Dead Donkey actor Neil Pearson and Diane Abbott MP.

The motley line-up recalled the heyday of Mr Livingstone's GLC rule, when parachuting lesbians were guests of honour at County Hall, but Ms Brand was always firmly in charge.

A veteran of a thousand benefit gigs, the Channel 4 star had earlier achieved the impossible, leaving Ken speechless, when she launched his campaign to be allowed on the Labour shortlist of candidates for Mayor of London.

Appearing as Eddie Large to Ken's Syd Little, she intervened when reporters asked if the inclusion of non-Labour Party members in the campaign represented "big tent" politics. "Is the Sun here? They'd love that, me and a big tent," she quipped.

Mr Livingstone was not to be outdone. "I just got better at making you laugh while I dip my hand into your pocket," was his summary of his post- GLC days.

But he preferred to concentrate on the more serious business of his political career. "I regret it is necessary to have this meeting," he said in the tones of a disappointed headmaster, "But there have been extensive briefings given to lobby journalists and others which suggest that I will be blocked from standing."

Crucially, Mr Livingstone stressed that "under no circumstances" would he stand as an independent candidate if the unthinkable should occur.

"I have given my entire adult life to Labour and I don't intend walking away from it," he said.

Hardliners in Labour's Millbank HQ have warned they will be looking closely into the campaign's funding to check if extremists are involved.

The MP did reveal the identity of his backers, but unfortunately the Great London Public is not yet on Downing Street's list of proscribed militant organisations.

His advert in London's Evening Standard had raised pounds 3,400, an average of pounds 24 per "ordinary Londoner", he said. That works out as a total of 142 backers, not the kind of support to make Number 10 quake.

Even so, Mr Livingstone declared he would publish a full list of his donations at the end of the campaign. More substantial backing could come from two unions which had approached him with offers of help, as well as a "Luvvies for Ken" group set up by Mr Pearson.

Ominously, however, Ms Brand warned that if Mr Livingstone let his supporters down, she was not afraid to use the ultimate put-down. "If he puts a foot wrong, it's Stringfellow or Archer," she said.

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