Ken, the great conductor

With his impeccable sense of timing and drama, Livingstone is the supreme politician of our age. But

The many have got their way over the few. While the Blairites, renowned for their tactical genius, head for a lie-down in a darkened room, Ken is still standing.

Consider a few of the farcical events in recent weeks: the never-ending meetings of the party's fearsome selection panel; the Prime Minister clearing his schedules to explain the latest tactics to Jeremy Paxman; the Prime Minister cancelling his interview with Paxman when the tactics suddenly changed; a furious Paxman travelling back and forth to Downing Street, his programme's running order in disarray; the Deputy Prime Minister clearing his schedules for a fruitless meeting with Ken; the normally calm Clive Soley, chairman of the PLP, racing from studio to studio like a demented chicken; Mo Mowlam indicating that she would have stood; a reluctant Frank Dobson weighing in, only for party strategists to discover that he is not the political performer they thought he was.

Walking calmly through the wreckage, utterly unruffled, like an innocent Inspector Clouseau, is the People's Ken.

So roll up and take a seat for the greatest show in town: a referendum on London's right to govern itself. The excitement at Westminster is palpable. There has not been anything like this since John Major took the bizarre step of standing down as leader to fight a leadership contest when no one was challenging him. But, hold on a minute, what did I suggest this latest frenzied excitement was all about?

As ever, Ken is calling all the tunes and he has decided on the theme for the contest. The following sentence from his launch tells you all that you need to know about the man running rings around his political opponents: "London's election will now be a referendum on whether London's first elected mayor will bring self- government to the capital, or merely be a facade with all real decisions taken centrally." Typical words of a great political artist. Like so much of what he says, they place him against the mighty edifice of central government. Ken always places himself against a mighty edifice. In the early 1980s, it was the courts. In the late 1980s, it was the Labour leadership. Now he is fighting central government and political parties - not just one party, but all of them.

There is some basis to his populist theme. It is unquestionably true that most Londoners wanted him to stand. Equally it is true that Labour's electoral college was set up for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to block him from being Labour's candidate. Bingo! He is now defying the party machine on behalf of Londoners.

Throughout this convoluted process, Livingstone has played a blinder. He has an instinctive sense of the rhythms of politics, what needs to be said and when. Ironically, the only politicians with a similar tactical and strategic grasp are Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell (who is a politician of sorts). Livingstone has out-Blaired the lot of them. His handling of the last two weeks is typical. After being defeated he risked appearing indecisive, losing also valuable momentum. Brilliantly, he came up with the wheeze of calling on Dobson to stand down for the "sake of the Labour Party".

The device made Livingstone appear as the noble conciliator, placed Dobson on the defensive and kept them both in the news. But Livingstone has a perfect sense of timing. When this momentum started to fade, he announced his candidacy. It was a little earlier than he had planned, but his instincts told him the moment had come.

Now the artist moves on to the next phase. Livingstone is far more pragmatic than his image suggests. An increasingly apoplectic range of opponents will portray him as a manic leftwinger. As ever, it will rebound on them, to Ken's advantage. He will go out of his way to woo business leaders, disaffected Tories and goodness knows who else.

Nor will this prove a complete facade. His proposals for the Tube, the raising of bonds and the sacking of the London Underground management, are no more "left-wing" than Frank Dobson's. Livingstone, an opponent of John Smith's proposed tax increases in 1992 and a supporter of the euro, has never been firmly anchored in the far left, which is one of the reasons why he has proved so damned hard to pin down.

The shrewd political calculator is also a great performer. The television interview has replaced the political meeting as a forum in which politicians can sparkle; and Livingstone is a natural, the best interviewee of his generation. I have a tape of Livingstone being interviewed on the old Meet the Press programme in December 1982. One of his interrogators was Paul Johnson, who was in a state of fury over Livingstone's meeting with Gerry Adams. At one point, the red-faced Johnson looked as if he himself would explode, with more devastating consequences than an IRA bomb. The other panellists took Johnson's side. Once the cascade of rage had subsided, Livingstone calmly and reasonably addressed the issues. By the end he appeared to be the only sane man in the studio. The issues themselves had been obscured by the mood music.

The melodious tunes have always cast a spell. He saw off Johnson with ease - but other heavyweights have met a similar fate. In the early 1980s, the mighty Evening Standard found that it was losing readers because of its furious anti-Ken line. The Standard modified its coverage without an intimidating word from a spin-doctor. Margaret Thatcher had some nervous twitches when he fought a brilliant campaign to save the GLC. In the late 1980s , he single-handedly fought a campaign against Neil Kinnock's policy review, to the growing fury of the Labour leader. At one NEC meeting, Livingstone declared that he "would not be silenced by the party machine". To which Kinnock replied: "Silenced? You've been on every bloody media outlet for the last 48 hours." In 1997, when Blair was walking on water, Livingstone beat Peter Mandelson to win a place on the NEC.

Now the great political conductor makes us all dance to his latest tune. Let us return to that emblematic sentence in his launch statement. While it contains a populist touch, there is a serious flaw.

The election, he insists, will be about whether the first elected mayor will bring self-government to the capital. But that is not what it is about. Or rather, that is what it cannot be about. The government has already decided the degree of self- government the capital will have. The bill setting up a London mayor and assembly has already been passed. Livingstone voted for it. The election of Livingstone as mayor will not change the powers in any way. The powers have already been decided.

More specifically, the financial structure of the Tube has also been agreed. It is in the statute book. The structure might be wrong. In my view, the government's determination to impose its solution for the Underground and then hand over responsibility was definitely wrong. But it has happened.

A Livingstone mayoralty will therefore lead to one of two possibilities. One is that he will disappoint his supporters and accept the reality as he finds it in office. This will involve more U-turns than the one he has already made on never standing as an independent. The other, more likely option is that Ken will be in confrontation with the government from day one.

This will make for exciting, even glamorous politics. Ken will take on huge institutions - which is the political position he seems happiest in.

But what will happen to the London Underground in the meantime? If Ken persuades the government that there is no mandate for its plans for the Tube, ministers would have to scrap their legislation and start all over again. If ministers insisted that their plans remained in place, Livingstone would surely refuse to implement them. The result would be paralysis.

This is the great conductor's fatal flaw. He makes people dance to tunes that do not reach a climax. For all Livingstone's artistry, Lord Denning did remove his Fares Fair policy. Thatcher did abolish the GLC. Kinnock did succeed in pushing through his policy review.

Livingstone once told me that he could not "do a David Blunkett" - compromising his views in the search for power. The comparison is instructive. When Blunkett arrived in the Commons, he too had been a powerful council leader. Like Ken, he was deeply depressed by Westminster. But in deciding to work with the grain, Blunkett has powers that Ken can only dream of. I predict he will be the next Home Secretary.

Ken, for all his artistry, always positions himself in a way that dooms him to impotence. I believe he genuinely wants to run something constructively. He has had enough of chat shows and the rest. But something in his make-up always seeks a confrontation that he will lose.

Livingstone will win easily in May. The victory will have an epic quality about it. A single man will have taken on the party machines and won. But although they are deeply unfashionable, it is party machines that actually deliver policies. Londoners will have plenty of time to reflect on the implications of the Livingstone victory, as they remain stuck in that stationary Tube on the Northern Line for many years to come.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor