The Livingstone Affair: How one man turned Blair's dream for London into a neverending nightmare

Click to follow
FRANK DOBSON was against it, Ken Livingstone was against it, virtually every Labour council leader was against it.

And now, the man who pushed hardest for a directly elected mayor in London is the same man who now faces the prospect of the policy exploding in his face. With less than six months to go before the election, Tony Blair's dream of self-government and a fresh voice for the capital looks already tarnished.

As Mr Livingstone faces the party's 12-strong selection panel at its Millbank HQ today, Downing Street will be hoping that the maverick MP doesn't effectively bar himself from the nomination shortlist.

After months of deliberation, Mr Blair conceded last weekend that he needed Mr Livingstone on the shortlist to avoid splitting the party in London. With Frank Dobson likely to triumph from an electoral college devised to give him victory, the Prime Minister believed that he could allow the former GLC leader onto the ballot paper and let democracy take its course.

The calculation was difficult, but a decision had been made. The risk of Mr Livingstone winning the Labour contest was much less than the risk of barring him and offering the perfect platform for an independent campaign.

Unfortunately, the newt fancier from Norwood once again proved his remarkable ability to do the unexpected, sticking to his hardline opposition against the Government plans to establish a public-private partnership to run the London Underground.

Yesterday, as details of his gruelling hour-long interview with the panel were released, the full extent of the antagonism towards Mr Livingstone emerged.

Sitting in a room with a portrait of former leader Clement Atlee watching over events, he was confronted by Ian McCartney, the Cabinet Office Minister, and Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

By sticking to his guns on his opposition to the partial privatisation of the Tube, Mr Livingstone had raised their hackles. For Mr McCartney and Mr Soley, it had turned into an issue of loyalty to the party, not just some arcane squabble over policy. Increasingly angry at the questions, Mr Livingstone "lost it", Millbank insiders said; he had allowed that morning's opinion poll lead (he was ahead by a country mile) to go to his head.

According to a verbatim note of the encounter obtained by The Independent, the "killer" exchanges went as follows:

McCartney: "At the end of the day, the Labour Party will put its manifesto to the people. Will you accept that manifesto?"

Livingstone: "If I couldn't accept the manifesto, I would stand down as a candidate."

McCartney: "What you are saying is that if the PPP was there for the Tube, you couldn't support the manifesto?"

Livingstone: "I'm absolutely clear about that."

Mr Livingstone claimed last night that the account of the conversation was selective, but he could not dispute the fact that he had forced the panel into a lengthy reconsideration of his fitness as a candidate.

"No candidate can have all the benefits of being a Labour candidate without any of the obligations," one insider said. "He just cannot be allowed to get away with that."

But with strong messages from Downing Street that the former GLC leader should be on the shortlist, the panel had a major headache.

"We decided to go for what was jokingly referred to as a `Third Way'," a senior source said yesterday. "We would give him another chance to clarify his position. He could not go on the shortlist if he was going to pull out at some later point."

Conspiracy theories abound as to exactly how a government with a massive Commons majority and record leads in the opinion polls found itself humiliated over the issue of the London mayoralty.

According to some MPs, Livingstone had deliberately provoked the panel in the hope of being excluded, in order to have free reign to stand as an independent. However, he has repeatedly stated in categoric terms that such a move is unthinkable. Tellingly, in the interview on Tuesday, the MP told the panel that he could hardly stand on his own because of the cost of such a move.

"How can I do that when it has taken me all my time to raise pounds 30,000 for a few adverts in the papers?" he is understood to have said.

However, he only needs a few big backers to raise the expected pounds 100,000 needed over the next few weeks and such comments may have been sheer Red Ken bravado.

According to yet another conspiracy theory, Mr Blair let it be known that he would allow Mr Livingstone onto the shortlist simply to ensure Downing Street's fingerprints were nowhere near a decision to block him.

This particular version conflicts with the fact that the PM was prepared to conduct local and national television interviews on Tuesday night. Even the Prime Minister's spokesman, Alastair Campbell, was taken by surprise by the decision to adjourn.

Critics point out that whatever the outcome today, Labour's and Mr Blair's reputation have been indelibly damaged. The muddle and delay have given the party a major problem in a contest that was intended as the jewel in the crown of the Government's devolution plans.

Yesterday's Queen's Speech included a new local government Bill to extend elected mayors across the country. If London's chaos is repeated throughout the land, Mr Blair may well bitterly regret the day he ever agreed to the idea.

The Diary of Disaster

January 1997

Tony Blair announces Labour's general election manifesto for London, with a referendum on a directly elected mayor as its centrepiece.

April 1998

NOP/Evening Standard opinion poll names Ken Livingstone as overwhelming favourite for the job, with 55 per cent of the vote.

May 1998

More than 70 per cent of Londoners vote for the Greater London Authority and mayor in a referendum

August 1998

Livingstone launches his own manifesto for mayor, which includes a freeze on Tube fares and a call for conductors to be put back on the buses.

January 1999

Livingstone declares he will work loyally with the Government, yet attacks government cuts to the poor in London. Ministers brief journalists that Downing Street will block him from a shortlist.

March 1999

Margaret McDonagh, Labour's general secretary, asks Frank Dobson to stand for mayor. Dobson refuses. Labour decides to delay choosing its candidate until November.

30 September 1999

Nick Raynsford (below), Minister for London, officially declares his candidacy at the Labour conference. Dobson and Blair had given him the all clear. On the same day, "colleagues" persuade Dobson to stand himself.

1 October 1999

Jeffrey Archer selected as official Tory candidate.

4 October 1999

Dobson's allies make clear he will actually stand. Raynsford soon abandons his own campaign and becomes Dobson's manager.

15 October 1999

New ICM/Evening Standard poll gives Livingstone biggest lead yet - 60 per cent, compared with Glenda Jackson on 16 per cent and Dobson on 15.

27 October 1999

Tony Blair finally comes off the fence and gives unprecedented public backing for Dobson as mayor. Referring to Livingstone, he declares he will "never ever" allow Labour to return to extremism of 1980s.

12 November 1999

Senior Labour and Downing Street sources indicate that the Prime Minister has finally made up his mind about the issue - Livingstone will not be blocked.

16 November 1999

D-day, with Livingstone, Dobson (right), Jackson and outsider Ken Baldry all interviewed by a London Selection Board of 12. Livingstone throws the process into chaos by suggesting he will stand down if forced to back government policy on the Tube. Farcical scenes as panel adjourns.

18 November 1999

Livingstone appears before the panel again. Will he be barred or allowed on to the shortlist?