"This is in danger of becoming the greatest West End farce in living memory." So said left-winger Mark Seddon as Labour's National Executive Committee finally began the process of readmitting Ken Livingstone to the party yesterday. Even Tony Blair smiled at his comment.
Less than four years after he was expelled for running as an independent in the Mayor of London elections of 2000, the NEC voted by 25-2 to put Mr Livingstone before an interview panel in the new year.
The decision was triggered by the formal withdrawal of Nicky Gavron as the party's candidate. Ms Gavron was expected to come fourth in the mayoral elections next June; Labour MPs in London were terrified that such a poor result would damage their prospects in a general election a year later.
If he passes a "loyalty test", and if party members in the capital endorse him, the former GLC leader will become the official Labour candidate by the end of next month.
But as the will-he-or-won't-he saga over Mr Livingstone's future seemed to be nearing its end, John Prescott made it clear yesterday that he felt this particular drama was more tragedy than comedy. During the NEC's tense, two-hour discussion of the mayor's application to rejoin the party, the Deputy Prime Minister launched a coruscating attack on his integrity and reliability. "I wouldn't trust him as far as I could bloody throw him," was one of the more printable remarks Mr Prescott made at the meeting in the House of Commons' Portcullis House annex.
In perhaps his strongest disagreement with Mr Blair since Labour came to office, Mr Prescott was furious not just with Mr Livingstone, but also with the carefully co-ordinated spinning operation to get him readmitted. With Downing Street and senior party figures suggesting that Ms Gavron would step aside, his allies said he felt "bounced" into giving the mayor one more chance at returning early from his exile. His anger boiled over as he left the meeting in the Boothroyd Room, muttering "f****** press" at the throng of reporters gathered for news of the vote.
Mr Prescott's anger has its roots in Mr Livingstone's declaration in 1999 that he would not run as an independent if he lost the selection contest to Frank Dobson. The Deputy Prime Minister and Ian McCartney, now Labour Party chairman, were on the interview panel. "What John was really, really angry about was that Livingstone lied to him and McCartney last time round," one NEC member said.
This time the five-strong interviewing panel will comprise Mr McCartney, the NEC chair Mary Turner, Margaret Wall of the Amicus-MSF union, Mike Griffiths of the GPMU union and Labour treasurer Jimmy Elsby. Mr Blair and Mr Prescott will be permitted to attend the meeting, but will have no say on its recommendation. The interview is expected to be held immediately before the next NEC meeting on 6 January, which will have to ratify the decision. Yesterday's vote concluded a dramatic 24 hours of behind-the-scenes activity in the Livingstone and Gavron camps, as well as within the party. In what many saw as a carefully orchestrated sequence, Mr Livingstone submitted a fresh application to join the party on Monday afternoon. As the London Labour Party regional board passed a motion calling for his return, Ms Gavron sent her letter to Mr McCartney stating she was no longer the candidate.
Ms Gavron's decision prompted the party's organisational sub-committee to write a paper recommending the idea of an interview panel.