Some eight years ago, I sat in an office and listened to the Prime Minister treat a newspaper conference to his thoughts on Ken Livingstone's London mayoral bid. Ken, so Mr Tony Blair assured us, would be a catastrophe for the city, the country, the continent, the planet and the galaxy (I exaggerate, but very slightly). His lethal brand of retrograde Marxist orthodoxy would bring us to our knees, he chided, and anyone who thought otherwise was naïve to the point of dementia.
What I wanted to chip in , and might well have done had a) my day begun with a fortifying Famous Grouse; and b) I not been cowering at the back in avoidance of Alastair Campbell's fabled right hook, was this: stop talking absolute bollocks, to borrow from a current defence minister, for two seconds, and consider that the real danger is that Ken will very likely turn out to be a mirror image of yourself.
So, I believe, has it proved. For all the grandiose intentions and pious rhetoric of old, what we have seen from Ken this highly charged week more than ever is a classically Blairite display of self-righteous intransigence in the face of allegations deserving a less high-handed response.
To the general charge of running the mayoralty as a personal fiefdom, Ken replies that this is what Mr Blair wanted – a paean to obedience he mightn't unfurl so blithely regarding Iraq. To the specific charge that large sums have been diverted by his London Development Agency to organisations with alleged links to Lee Jasper (one those equality advisers who seems more equal than others) and seemingly barely less phantasmal than the much-missed Peter Hain's Progressive Policy Forum, he hints at a right-wing conspiracy between Channel 4, which broadcast a polemic on Monday, and the Evening Standard.
I should point out here that I write for that paper, just as Ken contentedly did for several years himself (only after leaving the payroll did his disgust at Associated Newspapers' pro-Hitler flirtation in the mid-30s float to the surface). Against the equally precise charge that he drinks too much, and too early in the day, he deploys Auto-Response To Booze Allegation No 2 (b), citing the precedent of Winston Churchill's wartime consumption.
Nowhere does he suggest that these are legitimate concerns for the electorate of what he will insist on calling "The Greatest City In The World". Rather, his reaction has the flavour of a middle-ranking Greek deity, Bacchus perhaps, irked by the need to nip down from the peak of Olympus to deal with the fractious little people gathering in the glades below, and desperate to return to the summit before they stop ladling out the nectar.
The one bright spot in what he admits has been a dismal week is that it wasn't John Humphrys he faced in the Today studio yesterday, but James Naughtie. Now I yield to no one in my admiration for Jim's encyclopaedic knowledge of birdsong, and concerti for clavichord and lute, but his interviewing technique remains marooned in the "Minister, have you anything to add..." sepia-tinted era of the mid-1950s, and the Blairite slipperiness that makes Ken such a formidable rider of a punch wasn't required.
What Humphrys or the Knicker King of Knewsnight would have done is stick relentlessly to the question that most seriously threatens to put Boris Johnson, the Bertie Wooster to Ken's newt-fancying Gussie Fink-Nottle, in the mayoral office come May when they're handing out the gold chains and the sashes: are those LDA grants to organisations that either barely exist or have done nothing with the cash but vanish, evidence of corruption or incompetence?
The drinking, although far from irrelevant, isn't deadly. If Ken wishes to lubricate his troublesome bronchial chords with a large Scotch at 10am, and can hold it, good luck to him, even if that Churchill comparison stretches to breaking point the cheeky chappie chutzpah that once made him so endearing.
One thing about Winston was that he was witty even when sozzled. When Bessie Braddock chided him for drunkenness, he didn't reply "Yeah, darlin', but you're a Nazi concentration camp guard and I'll be sober (at least until 10 o'clock) in the morning." And if he had been that crude and nasty, as Ken was to a Jewish reporter on the Standard, he'd promptly have recanted.
Ken, on the other hand, follows the Blair line on apologising. While he has offered a fulsome mea culpa for the slave trade, just like Mr Blair, he cleaves remorselessly to "never explain, never apologise" when the fault is entirely his own, indulging that Narcissistic faith in his own flawlessness that has typified the demagogue down the ages. Self-love, as Erich Segal nearly put it, means never having to say you're sorry.
The contrast with Boris, political history's first professional apologist (and with excellent reason), couldn't be more damaging. Tonally Ken is losing this contest hands down, and in a personality-dominated race such as this, tone is crucial. Even those who regard the Congestion Charge as one of the boldest and most admirable policies effected anywhere in recent years will desert Ken if he continues to evince the monomania that goes with holding too much power too unaccountably for too long. Those who admire Boris even less than Ken's imbecile Bendy Buses may yet elect him purely for the anticipated delight of hearing their civic figurehead grovel for errors of his own commission.
The life of the ex-mayor of a self-proclaimed Greatest City On Earth who relies heavily on his stoic reaction to terrorist attack isn't easy, as a glance at Rudi Giuliani's crumbling campaign for the Republican nomination confirms. At home with time to kill is no place for the morning drinker.
It isn't too late for him to challenge the perception that he's a hideous hybrid of the last two Labour PMs, mixing the party boss ruthlessness of Gordon Brown with Mr Blair's spin-fixated egomania into a peculiarly noxious mayoral cocktail. If Hillary Clinton is any guide, Ken could yet turn things round with a few Johnnie Walker-flavoured tears and a moving thank you to the people of London for helping him find his true voice.
But that voice, however false, must be a humbler voice. Imperiously dismissing any reasonable examination into the workings of his office – those bemusing grants, the startling salaries paid to associates, the apparent misuse of his staff's time to launch personal attacks on his egregious old foe Trevor Phillips – as malevolent conspiracy can only accelerate the countdown. Especially when the lead investigator is the Standard's Andrew Gilligan. The last cockily abrasive character to wage war against Mr Gilligan, as Ken will need little reminding, was a certain Alastair Campbell, and you don't see a lot of people cowering from him any more.Reuse content