Recriminations have begun in the Labour Party over who was to blame for the fiasco that is expected to result in Ken Livingstone becoming mayor of London in tomorrow's election.
Sources at the party's Millbank headquarters accused Downing Street yesterday of repeatedly putting off a decision on who should be the Labour candidate, saying that delay enabled Mr Livingstone to run a two-year campaign to become mayor.
Labour officials revealed that Number 10 had ignored two specific warnings to "get a move on" and find a heavyweight candidate to halt the Livingstone bandwagon.
They said the first was given shortly after the 1997 general election by David Hill, the party's chief media spokesman at the time.
The second Millbank warning came after Alun Michael, a Blair ally, narrowly pipped Rhodri Morgan, who was seen as being off-message, to become Labour's candidate as First Secretary of Wales before the elections to the Welsh Assembly last year.
"Number 10 was warned to learn the lessons from the narrow squeak we had in Wales," a senior party source said. "It was told that we had to take Ken on as soon as possible. But the advice was ignored."
Some senior Labour officials believe that Frank Dobson, the Labour candidate, could have run the independent Mr Livingstone much closer if he had had another three months to campaign. But Downing Street sources rejected the criticism last night. While accepting that there were lessons to be learnt from the London selection process, they insisted there were good reasons to delay the choice of Labour's standard-bearer in London.
Blair allies believe that Mr Livingstone could have inflicted much more damage on Labour if the mayoral contest had been more drawn out. They feared privately that, if Mr Dobson had been selected last summer, the party would have suffered almost a year of public infighting and that Mr Livingstone may well have persuaded many more activists to quit Labour. By keeping the campaign relatively short, they said, the party would remain largely intact.
Mr Blair is keen to prevent a "blame game" erupting inside the Labour Party over who was responsible for the fiasco. Although some senior Labour figures want him to admit that Downing Street was partly at fault, aides suggested he was unlikely to do so.
"He believes the most important thing is that Ken Livingstone is not the Labour candidate," said one. "That would have done much more damage to Labour. Think of what would have happened when Ken said the financial community had killed more people than Hitler."
Although Mr Blair admitted candidly last month that he was wrong to block Mr Morgan in Wales, he will not make a similar apology over London. "We believe we will be proved right in our severe doubts over Ken Livingstone," one minister said last night.
Mr Dobson's frustration at media concentration on Labour's selection process spilt over yesterday when he refused to take questions about the issue. The former secretary of state for health left a recording of Channel 4's Powerhouse programme, tearing off his microphone and walking across the set in the middle of a debate while cameras were running.
The Dobson camp denied Tory claims that this was a "fit of pique" and said that the Labour candidate simply wanted to get to the House of Commons to hear Jack Straw's statement on the May Day riots.Reuse content