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  1. Politics
15 May 2000

Could it really happen?

Jackie Ashleytries a little fantasy history

By Jackie Ashley

The No 10 operator could hardly believe her ears: “Ken Livingstone here,” said the unmistakable nasal voice. “I want to speak to Tony Blair.” Under her breath, she muttered: “He won’t speak to you, surely.” But she put the call through. The conversation that followed was terse. No, he would not meet. No, he would not set foot in Downing Street.

It was hardly surprising, thought Prime Minister Livingstone. If he were Blair, he’d feel pretty sore, too. Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher had sulked for years and years; for Blair, it must be all the more galling given that his usurper was a man he had spent so much time and energy trying to stop.

But it had happened – the biggest political upset for years – provoking a stream of articles, books and TV films on “The Rise and Fall of the Third Way”.

Roy Greenslade of the Guardian had been almost alone in predicting the bad general election result in 2001. He still waved the cutting around, the one that claimed Blair would win a majority of fewer than 20. The mass abstention of the Labour heartlands was to blame, according to the election analysts.

By then, Livingstone’s performance as London mayor – the mass public transport plans, the car tolls and tube bonds – had been almost universally acclaimed. The capital was moving, the gridlock broken. Even Ken himself was now getting to places on time – not through any personal resolution, but because the tube, which he still used, was reliable.

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Frank Dobson, stung by Blair’s offer of a minister of state’s job under Peter Mandelson, had accepted Livingstone’s counter-offer of London poverty tsar. When Mo Mowlam, Clare Short and Michael Meacher had been eased out of office, they formed a dining club called simply “True Labour”. The nucleus of an anti-Blair movement was in place.

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Their first campaign – to get Livingstone back into the Labour Party – proved successful at the 2002 party conference. (Livingstone, despite earlier pledges to stand down, acted true to form and stood as an independent in Brent East in 2001, and actually increased his majority.) A year later, Labour was in deep crisis. The euro’s continuing weakness against the pound – it had fallen to 40p, 35p, 25p – had all but destroyed British manufacturing. The pressure grew for Britain to join the euro and for Blair and Gordon Brown to redeem their promise to hold a referendum. Car-making, steel-making, even pharmaceuticals – all had been virtually wiped out. The Tories had taken Rotherham, one of the safest Labour seats in England, in a by-election, following the sad decision by the sitting MP, Denis MacShane, to accept a post in Brussells.

Yet the government, alarmed by the apparent success of the Hague/Portillo “save the pound” campaign, remained reluctant to act. It was defeated in the Commons by an unholy alliance of Tory anti-Europeans and Labour pro-Europeans on a motion calling for a referendum. Blair borrowed from John Major’s book of tactics and resigned as party leader to face the inevitable challenge from Livingstone. He even quoted Hugh Gaitskell about fighting and fighting again for the party he loved. But the party didn’t really believe Blair had loved it in the first place.

In the electoral college, the constituency members went overwhelmingly for Livingstone. So did union members (nobody dared try to revive the block vote), who were too worried about their jobs to listen to their general secretaries. Even a sizeable number of MPs, under pressure from their constituents, plumped for Ken. The unthinkable happened. Blair lost.

There had been some celebration that night. The bottles of Mersault, the food shipped in from the River Cafe – Ken hadn’t lost his taste for the finer things in life, and even if the Sun described him as a champagne socialist, who cared? He was walking on water.

Blair’s greatest error, Livingstone now reflected, had been his failure to deal with the feud between Mandelson and Brown. Right to the end, he seemed buffeted one way, then the other, as the rival camps poured venom on each other. He, Ken, despite his disarming, non-threatening manner, was a ruthless bastard at heart, and would have despatched both of them years ago.

But now he had his own problems. How could he keep up his personal popularity? Blair, for all his talk of coalition and big tents, had never actually managed “inclusive politics”; Livingstone had done that in London. So now he would have Mo in as Foreign Secretary; little Robin as Chancellor (he’d changed sides, sharpish – but then, he and Robin had always agreed on two crucial issues: the euro and Gordon); Tony Banks as Home Secretary (Banks would keep them roaring in the aisles, no matter what anti-libertarian policies the government had to dish out). Charlie Kennedy could take Health, and mop up all the dung that would be flung on that issue. Then he’d offer Steve Norris Trade and Industry, even though the News of the World had exposed his latest two mistresses; they had got on well in the early days of the new London administration before Norris returned to the Commons, unexpectedly defeating Barbara Follett in Stevenage in the 2001 election.

There was just one thing that worried him. Mark Seddon – who had narrowly held on to Islington North for Labour after Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to work full-time for Reclaim the Streets – had announced that he would seek the Labour nomination for London mayor. Seddon was a bit too maverick for Ken’s taste; in any case, Dobbo surely deserved his reward at last. Seddon had been asked what would happen if Labour didn’t select him. The little squirt had smiled and said: “I will never leave the Labour Party – and I choose my words with care.” And he’d winked. What the devil did he mean by that?