Left march

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2000, 12:00am

Until he ran into a small problem in the person of Ken Livingstone, Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed to hold Britain in the palm of his hand. Yesterday, matters appeared to have changed.

When it became obvious that Londoners would vote 'Red Ken' into power as London's first elected mayor, the Prime Minister told them: 'I believe passionately he would be a disaster.' He could be right. But when he rigged the selection process to exclude Mr Livingstone as the Labour Party candidate, Mr Blair handed him a sympathy vote on a plate. The premier made the same mistake - giving faithful labour unions block votes - to get his own man in as leader of the new Welsh parliament. That went so badly wrong that his protege resigned and Mr Blair had to apologise.

Now he has a member of the 'loony left' at the helm of London. This is the faction whose Trotskyite policies and profligacy made Labour unelectable until Mr Blair reinvented the party. There are no signs Mr Livingstone has changed. But he did one thing right. His popularity soared when he slashed fares on the decaying London Underground. And he has made a promise to sort out the city's chronic traffic problems. People believe he will speak up for London, and is not one of Tony's 'yes' men.

They are not so forgiving of Mr Blair. The gilded youth of British politics is looking decidedly tarnished. The main complaint is that the premier runs Westminster like a personal fiefdom, with a private office that bullies and tries to manipulate the press. Opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague described him as 'a control freak out of control'.

So this result may be less a victory for Mr Livingstone than a defeat for Mr Blair. He is losing touch with public feeling, and this is a wake-up call. The London mayor's direct powers are somewhat limited, but it is a high-profile job with control of the police and transport, a $60 billion budget and great influence. From here on, Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair's destinies are intertwined. If they cannot work together both will pay the price. More to the point, so will London.