Too cheeky by half

Observations on Tony Banks

When Tony Banks was sports minister (1997-99), he, with other MPs, was lobbied at Westminster by the Coalition of Football Supporters. One supporter said how difficult it had been for him to meet the cost of his journey from Manchester out of his low income. This won't do at all, said the minister. Here we are, he said, we MPs, all well paid: we could have a whip round and give them £1,000 for travel expenses.

His colleagues nailed smiles to their faces and studied their shoes intently, wondering where they would be if the idea of paying lobbyists' expenses caught on. Their silence must have led the football supporters to suppose that the proposal had been agreed: they wrote several times asking for their £1,000. They never got it, though.

Yes, good old Banksy, the cheeky chappie who now wants to be Labour's candidate for mayor of London - the members' ballot papers are just going out - and then to overthrow Ken Livingstone in next year's election. He always had a talent for populist gestures and for embarrassing people. When he was assistant general secretary of a broadcasting union (1976-83), he came, as the guest speaker, to a dinner at the National Union of Journalists conference. NUJ leaders were trying to defuse a dispute with their staff. With the NUJ general secretary, Harry Conroy, sitting beside him, Banksy launched into a tirade against union leaders who failed to treat their staff properly. As he sat down, he looked at Conroy's thunderous face and - there's no other word for it - smirked.

His fellow Labour MP Austin Mitchell calls him "the fastest heckling gun in the west". In the 1980s, in the days of the Greater London Council, he embarrassed Livingstone more than he is likely to do in the mayoral election, by outflanking his leader on the left. Being on the left was then fashionable, and it looked as though the left was winning the battle for Labour. So when Livingstone decided against illegally refusing to set a rate, Banks and his GLC colleague Paul Boateng sneered that Ken had "bottled out".

Boateng, now a cabinet minister, realised quicker than Banks that they had backed the wrong horse, and has long been spitting venom about Livingstone's extremism. But Banks is catching up. The main platform for his mayoral campaign is that Gordon Brown likes him, but hates Livingstone. It's a novel idea of democracy that Londoners should check with the Chancellor before they elect a mayor.

If, as people say, Banks is new Labour's candidate, it's a measure of ministers' contempt for the regional governments they created. The cheeky chappie is an honourable enough role, but Banks, pushing 60, now wants more. You may deride Prince Charles's blimpishness. Banksy, however, tells the world sententiously that if the prince isn't careful, "he is going to lose respect and undermine the monarchy". Undermine the monarchy, forsooth. I think I preferred the cheeky chappie, though I wouldn't have him as mayor.