Voices of London spend their first day bickering

GLA first meeting: Livingstone watches from the back of the hall as the capital's new 'parliament' begins with a day of party point-scoring
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Indy Politics

Outside, five shirt-sleeved policemen yawned and stretched. But as the Greater London Assembly was meeting for the first time in the Emmanuel Centre, next to Church House in Westminster, riot gear had not been deemed necessary.

Inside it seemed appropriate that the atmosphere in the court of King Ken was more happy clappy than high church, with the flags of the world adorning the walls and uplifting texts circling the ceiling. "And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, 'Behold! He will dwell with them and they will be His people", one of them read. But sadly He was relegated to a seat at the back of the hall, it being the assembly's big day and not the Mayor's.

Under the organ at the front of the temporary chamber, an intimate oval table provided the necessary closeness for hugging, should the urge arise. Few seemed to feel the need at the assembly's First Supper though and the crisp, white tablecloth remained unsullied by the crumbs of broken political bread. In fact the nine Conservatives, huddled at the bottom of the table, looked more inclined to throw food than symbolically share it. And given that the huge GLA logo above their heads - depicting a stylised Thames on a green circle - resembled nothing more than a curly hair on a dinner plate it was perhaps understandable that they chose to sup with long spoons.

Despite repeated calls for peace and harmony from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, (who apparently had spent some private time beforehand at a hug-fest in which Labour's Trevor Phillips was made Chairman and the Lib Dems' Baroness Hamwee his deputy), the Tories rose one by one to preach condemnation. Such a move was nothing short of an immoral liaison, they cried.

This cast the Baroness, a stout, grey-haired figure, in the unlikely role of the official Scarlet Woman to the Assembly.

"In some parts of the country, promiscuous young women become virgins again on the night of the full moon," boomed Tony Arbour, the Tory member for South-west London, just restraining himself from pointing a trembling finger. "It is really like that when the Liberal Democrats before an election proclaim their virginity and their ethics... and immediately after the election they are anybody's for the promise of office."

Mr Phillips retaliated by accusing Mr Arbour of turning the assembly into "some kind of partisan knocking shop", while the Labour group leader Lord Harris of Haringey chastised the Tories for boasting falsely about the size of their mandate. Their nine seats might equal Labour's, he said, but at least Labour's vote was bigger.

Baroness Hamwee felt obliged to take the microphone to deny that she was "an illegitimate virgin", but it fell to her Liberal Democrat colleague Lord Tope to gallantly declare that despite his long association with her he would decline to discuss the subject. "Indeed, I am rather surprised it should be mentioned at all on this first day of our work," he sniffed.

The audience of several hundred, meanwhile, was in full-throated, foot-stomping form. "Oooh!" they cried as Trevor Phillips slapped down an impertinent Tory point of order; "Boo!" and "Haven't you got a seconder?!" as the Tories' carping speeches became tiresome.

Mr Phillips, long rumoured to have had mayoral ambitions, switched from headmaster mode ("We are here as representatives of five million people. They expect us to conduct ourselves as they would like to conduct themselves if they were here,") to pure Larry Grayson when a speaker accidentally addressed him as "Mr Mayor".

"Oh, just stop it, you lot!" he said coyly. "It's going to get very annoying if you keep doing that!" Actually he looked far from annoyed, though perhaps he was referring to Ken's chagrin rather than to his own.

So chuffed was Mr Phillips at getting the Chairman's job that he could barely contain himself, and his opening speech would have been more in keeping at a celebrity awards bash. At one point he even began to thank Ken for being there, though he pulled himself together in time to turn his head and mumble the words into his red rose buttonhole.

And from there on in, normal political service was resumed. Rising to propose that the Mayor should henceforth publish all his policy advice, Lord Harris was candid enough to admit that he had probably voted against that very move when the assembly Bill went through the House of Lords last summer but times, evidently, had changed.

The Conservative group leader Bob Neill looked heavenwards as he rose to respond, and quoted straight from the ceiling: "He has put a new song in my mouth!" he cried with a nod in Ken's direction.

But Lord Tope rode to the defence. "The text that comes to my mind is, 'Blessed is the Sinner that Repents'," he cooed. And from his perch at the back Mr Livingstone managed a sardonic smile.

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