London fog

How Tony Blair, loony leftists and a sex scandal around a charismatic author turned the London mayor's race into a political-party nightmare.

Published December 8, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

This spring, London residents will choose a mayor who will have hitherto unheard-of authority. The vote will follow months of struggle for Prime Minister Tony Blair and other British political leaders. Ironically, the search for viable mayoral candidates has all but exhausted the very political parties that had hoped to gain power through the election.

London has had a lord mayor since the Middle Ages, but in modern times, it has been little more than a courtesy title, an annual reward for merchant philanthropists. The lord mayor's nominal jurisdiction is only over the square mile in the center called the City of London.

So when Blair came up with the idea of executive mayors with real power for Britain's larger cities, the only people who bridled were hard-line traditionalists. They objected that it was one more step down the slippery slope toward complete Americanization.

The political parties in Britain particularly loved the idea. A LaGuardia-Walker-Giuliani for London provided the opportunity to promote one of their own to greater glory -- and maybe even tackle some of London's chronic problems, such as traffic gridlock, lamentable public transportation and a failing police force. Party leaders enthusiastically began preparations for the first election to be held May 4, 2000.

But of the three effective parties, only the Liberal Democrats could agree on a candidate. They speedily nominated an unknown, Susan Kramer, who has stayed that way and will inevitably finish a poor third.

The Labor and Conservative parties, however, soon found themselves with splitting headaches, for more or less the same reason. Each had a charismatic front-runner whom their party machines did not want.

On your left, find Ken Livingstone, an unreconstructed far-out socialist. As leader of the last local London administration, Livingstone consistently embarrassed the Labor government with such radical gestures as inviting two leaders of the Irish Republic Army as official guests, long before they were welcome anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

But ordinary members of the Labor Party loved "Red Ken" for introducing cheap subway tickets and other populist measures. Many of them -- perhaps a majority -- prepared to vote for him. Blair, faced with the prospect of his great ideas being subverted by "the founder of the loony left," as he called Livingstone, set about stopping him.

On your right, we have Jeffrey Archer, author of lurid bestselling novels, whose passion is politics. Archer has held a series of high-profile jobs under Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, culminating in a seat in the House of Lords. Never mind that Lord Archer's career was littered with allegations of theft and fraud. In order to get into Oxford, he falsely claimed to have been at the University of California. In another gaffe, he walked out of a Toronto store with two unpaid-for suits, insisting he was looking for the shirt department. He also indulged in insider trading of television shares.

When it became obvious that the rank and file of London conservatives were prepared to ignore the unpleasant aroma around Archer in favor of his undoubted charm and electric crowd-pleasing, Tory Party leader William Hague bit the bullet. Smiling bravely, he announced that he was convinced that Archer was "a man of probity and integrity," adding, "I am going to back him to the full."

While Archer busied himself visiting malls, kissing babies and ordering for a millennium fancy dress ball a costume of Dick Whittington (the only lord mayor of whom anyone had ever heard), the Tories relished the spectacle of Labor desperately attempting to leaven democracy with the dictates of its leader: Blair set up a panel packed with his own people and gave it the power to veto candidates.

This transparent attempt to bar Livingstone upset the public. Even Blair's own choice for mayor, veteran Frank Dobson, announced he would withdraw unless Livingstone was allowed to run. This gesture, however, may have sprung less from a sense of fairness than from the fear that, if barred, Livingstone would run as an Independent against him. If he had been less genteel, Dobson could have quoted LBJ's celebrated preference about tents and pissing.

Meanwhile, the third Labor candidate, erstwhile theater and movie star Glenda Jackson, M.P., was completely upstaged.

As Hague, not hitherto known as a funny fellow, neatly put it to Blair across the floor of the House of Commons, "Why not split the job in two, with Frank Dobson as your day mayor and Ken Livingstone as your nightmare?"

Tory laughter stopped abruptly on Nov. 19 when the Murdoch tabloid, News of the World, presented Archer with a sworn statement by an old friend and the transcripts of three bugged telephone calls. They concerned a 13-year-old libel case in which the Daily Star was ordered to pay $750,000 in damages for suggesting that Archer had bedded a prostitute. Though he in fact admitted giving the woman $3,500 to go abroad, judge and jury believed him when he said he had been having dinner with friends on the night in question.

The new evidence came from a freelance television producer, one Ted Francis. Francis confessed that he had written to an attorney at Archer's request falsely saying that they had dined together that night. He later received $18,000 in used notes from the author as backing for a TV series that was never made. In the calls, Francis had pretended that they had been found out, and Archer obligingly confirmed the fateful facts.

When Hague heard that the paper was telling all, he abruptly ordered Archer off the mayoral ticket. The Conservatives have gone back to the drawing board to find a new candidate.

Meanwhile, over at the Labor Party, the vetting panel reluctantly OK'd Livingstone's candidacy. London members are preparing to vote between Livingstone, Dobson and Jackson. It looks ever more likely that the wrong candidate -- from Blair's point of view -- will win.

But the nightmare is not over yet. With the forecast of a new far-left and a powerful "alternative power base" being created, it may just be starting.

By Elkan Allan

Elkan Allan is a longtime British journalist and TV producer.

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