Prescott holds his nose as the outcast bounces back

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Indy Politics

John Prescott had a face like thunder, lightning and torrential rain all rolled into one. Ken Livingstone, on the other hand, smiled like a lizard who had just eaten a rather delicious fly.

The contrast between the two men could not have been greater yesterday as they left the crucial "loyalty test" meeting that paved the way for the Mayor of London's readmittance to the Labour party. Mr Livingstone's five-year ban, imposed for running as an independent candidate at the last mayoral elections, was lifted after the party's ruling National Executive Committee voted by 22 to 2 to take him back.

Tony Blair, who had predicted four years ago that the former GLC leader would be a "disaster" for London, admitted that he had been proved wrong by the Mayor's record in office. "Those predictions have not turned out to be correct. I think if the facts change you should be big enough to change your mind," he said.

The Mayor said he was delighted to be back in the party he had joined 30 years ago. Ballot papers will today go out to party members and union affiliates in the capital to vote on Mr Livingstone's candidacy by 30 January. The sequence of yesterday's events began at 10am when Mr Livingstone arrived for his interview before a four-strong panel at Labour's HQ in Westminster. A plastic cup of coffee in hand, his normally hunched gait was untypically bouncy, but his words to the assembled media were typical Ken. "I thought I might pop into the inquest," he quipped, a reference to the investigation into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, taking place around the corner at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre. The interview took place in Room 1, a bare-walled basement of No 16 Old Queen Street, the party's new home. But the Lubyanka-style menace of Millbank was clearly a million miles away when what Ian McCartney, the party chairman, described as a "good-natured meeting" took place. After a mere 30 minutes, Mr Livingstone emerged with a grin and a characteristic one-liner. "There were many old friends around the table I was pleased to see again," he said.

For his part, Mr Prescott's severe weather warning of an expression was certainly more eloquent than any words he could have uttered in the wake of the momentous decision. "So, did he convince you, Mr Prescott?" yelled a reporter. Scowl. "Did you believe him? Mr Prescott?" Fiercer scowl. "Did you have a happy New Year, Mr Prescott?" Even fiercer scowl. The thick-set concrete of the Deputy Prime Minister's face failed to crack when he arrived four hours later at the House of Commons' Portcullis House annexe for the full NEC meeting.

Mr Blair opened proceedings with a general admission that he had been proved wrong about the Mayor. Mr Prescott, although agreeing to vote for readmission, made clear his own deep reservations. "I'm holding my nose," he said, twice. After 33 minutes, Ken was back in the party.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, saw the funny side of the day's momentous events. "I'm always pleased when people redeem their behaviour. I'm in favour of the community sentence with satellite tracking," he said. And Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing MP and a Livingstone supporter, couldn't resist pointing out that the NEC venue bore the name of a former Labour leader renowned for cynical fixes. "How appropriate, the Wilson Room. I didn't think they had a sense of humour," he said as he breezed by.

As he gazed down from his portrait, Harold Wilson certainly looked pleased. But just down the corridor, a painting of another former Labour leader passed a different judgement. Neil Kinnock, the man who said he would tear up his party card if Red Ken returned, looked positively ill.

Will he play by the rules?

The decision to re-admit Mr Livingstone to Labour came after he signed a pledge of loyalty to the party's "constitution, principles and policies". The Mayor will have a key role in deciding the manifesto for the mayoral election in June. But how does his record match up to the questions asked of him by officials yesterday?

Will you support the party's policies in London? Mr Livingstone called Gordon Brown's public private partnership for the Tube "criminally irresponsible", but abandoned legal action ahead of its introduction last year. His congestion charge policy was opposed in 2000 by Labour, but has since been highly praised by ministers. Elsewhere he has been a paragon of virtue on Labour manifesto commitments on housing, regeneration, anti-poverty strategies, supporting the Olympic bid for London, getting people on buses and more police on the streets.

Will you support the party's constitution and rules? In 2000 Mr Livingstone told an interview panel that he would not stand as an independent if he lost to Frank Dobson in the party's selection contest. Within weeks, he did just that. However, Ian McCartney, one of the people misled last time, said yesterday that Mr Livingstone had signed 11 previous loyalty pledges when standing as a Labour candidate in his career and had abided by them all.

Will you support Government policy? Mr Livingstone says "I am what I am" but has agreed not to attack the Government. He has called President George Bush "the greatest threat to life on this planet'' and he led the anti-war march in London.