Published in the Evening Standard, 29 September 2005
So Ken learned something from his old nemesis. Like Margaret Thatcher, the mayor wants to go on and on and on.
Yesterday's revelation that Livingstone plans to seek a third and then a fourth term ? so booking his place on the Olympic podium for 2012 ? is hardly a surprise. I remember interviewing him shortly after his election in 2000, jokily suggesting that he would surely model himself after Ed Koch, the New York mayor who served so long he eventually came to personify the city. No, said Ken. Koch only served three terms.
Was five more like it? ?Twenty years is a nice round number.?
With the exception of the prime ministership, most political jobs aren't like that. If the Deputy Under-Secretary for Fisheries tells you he adores his job and wants to do it forever, you know he's lying. Most politicians itch with ambition and want to move on.
But Ken is different. He clearly loves being mayor and lusts after no other post: it's the job he feels he was born to do. His ambition is to be Mr London, the way Fiorello La Guardia was Mr New York ? a big city figure, remembered for generations. (Though few would bet on our kids ever flying in and out of Livingstone Airport.)
Even more unusually, given that this is politics, Ken may well be able to realise his plan ? and hold office for years to come. That was certainly the thrust of Tony Blair's endorsement at the Labour party conference on Tuesday. A man the prime minister once predicted would be a ?disaster? for the capital was now hailed as ?a great London mayor.? So long as Blair is in charge, Ken's hold on the Labour franchise seems safe. According to the ultra-Blairites, the PM wants to stay until at least 2008: that would see Livingstone comfortably through to his next election.
What then? If Gordon Brown does at last inherit, things will become more problematic. The chancellor is no fan of the mayor, an enmity nurtured since Livingstone rashly called for Brown to be sacked when the Chancellor had barely settled into Number 11. Still, as PM Brown would probably put aside that grudge. If Livingstone was still popular, he would let him carry the Labour standard in London: after the mess Blair got into six years ago, Brown would know better than to try to block him again.
Only a spectacular error, or scandal, could see Labour dropping Ken ? making way for a rival like Trevor Phillips. Otherwise, the challenge to the Livingstone hegemony will come from outside.
The Liberal Democrats won't be keeping Ken up at night. Even an appealing candidate like Simon Hughes could not break through the solid Labour and Conservative bastions that pepper this city. The Lib Dems enjoy the odd pocket of support ? in Islington, Richmond or Bermondsey ? but not enough to construct a London-wide majority.
Which leaves the Tories. London is a test-case for the Conservative Party. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra's hymn to New York, if the Tories can't make it here, they can't make it anywhere.
For one thing, this is a place rich in Conservative votes. From the plush neighbourhoods of Kensington and Chelsea to the suburbs of Bromley and Barnet, Greater London should hardly be hostile territory. There was a time ? 1967 to be precise ? when the Tories could win 82 of the 100 seats on the GLC.
There have been modest signs of revival, with the Conservatives winning back the likes of Putney, Ilford North and Enfield Southgate in May. But if they are ever to form a government they will have to do much better than that. They will need to repeat Thatcher's success ? turning much of London and the South East Tory blue. Wresting City Hall from Ken Livingstone will prove they can do it.
That will require a candidate. Conservative strategists know what they're looking for: someone credible, well-known and who badly wants the job. That last requirement is a reference to Steve Norris, whose refusal to quit the chairmanship of the Jarvis engineering firm hurt his mayoral bid last year. The Jarvis name was a PR headache, but it also suggested Norris didn't truly believe he could win ? or was at least hedging his bets. To beat Livingstone, the Tories need a candidate who wants to be mayor as much as he does.
When pressed, they can come up with a short-list. Sebastian Coe is at the top of it. He has high name-recognition and, thanks to the Olympic bid, a proven record of getting results. But he has his hands full running the 2012 Games. It's possible he could do both, but Londoners might suspect over-stretch or, worse, megalomania. Besides, says one Conservative glumly, ?Seb's ambition is to become President of the IOC,? the top job in world sport.
The next name is no less impossible. Michael Portillo could beat Ken, Tories say with certainty ? confident their theory will never be tested by reality. His post-1997 creed of tolerance and recognition of diversity would fit perfectly with London. The trouble is, Portillo has lost his appetite for politics. ?He's been there, done that and got the T-shirt,? says one who knows him well.
Maybe the Conservatives could copy New York's Republicans, who co-opted a businessman, Michael Bloomberg, as their candidate. Except the Tories have few high-flying entrepreneurs in their circle these days. Business stars are still more likely to be found sucking up to Tony Blair than Michael Howard.
And that's the heart of the matter. To beat Ken, the Conservatives don't just need a winning person, they need a winning message ? an improvement in the Tory ?brand? that would bring success not just in London but across Britain. As the party heads to Blackpool next week, still leaderless, that day looks as remote as ever. Ken can get comfy in his mayor's chair: he's not going to lose it any time soon.