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Wanted: a big-hitter to challenge Ken

From The London Evening Standard.

There is something creepy about Ken Livingstone's trip to Cuba. While London may well be able to learn from Cuba's Olympic success, as the mayor says, the visit smacks of a junket. And although Ken has said he did not go there to pay homage to the dying Fidel Castro (as many suspected) it does look as if the mayor is hoping to reinforce his revolutionary credentials ahead of his cheesy date with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez today.

Creepy is not the word.  Announced at the last minute,  I thought that if Ken really wanted to meet Fidel Casto then he should ask George Galloway for an introduction.  Gruesome Georgie claims him as a friend.

What does this excursion to Castro's Marxist redoubt say about the mayor's style of governance? In a week when London's Olympic efforts came under strain, should the mayor jaunt around the Caribbean, with us picking up the bill?

The answer is probably no, but who is going to stop him? That is the real question. Halfway through his second term, Ken is untouchable. He runs City Hall with a secretive cabal of favourites and mocks the democratic processes that were meant to hold him to account.

Castro can teach Ken nothing about clinging to power. The mayoral legislation set no limit to the number of terms an individual can occupy the office and Ken has said he wants to be there for the 2012 Olympics. That would mean at least four terms, a record unknown in respectable democracies.

Lord Stevens, the most respected metropolitan police commissioner in recent memory, is seen by many as the perfect choice to stand against Ken. His pragmatism and ability to deal with competing interests distinguished him at Scotland Yard and he would inspire confidence in the crucial areas of crime and terrorism. The Tories have approached him, but he is still bogged down in the Princess Diana inquiry and the timing was all wrong. But that could change and there is still some way to go before the early summer of 2008. Big hitters have a well-founded fear of running against Ken and facing the humiliation of losing. But the last two elections he won were not landslides by any means. ken took 55 per cent of the vote to Norris's 45 per cent.

And there is an unknown factor that could work to the advantage of the Tory candidate in 2008. John Rees, national secretary of George Galloway's Respect party told me they were planning to start a selection process for a mayoral candidate after Christmas.

The prospect of Galloway running would appal Ken. The former MP who took Tower Hamlets from Labour has built up a solid vote for Respect among London's muslims. But would Galloway run? "I don't think it's in his mind at the moment," Rees said. But even if it isn't Galloway, someone from Respect will.

Meanwhile, Ken is off to Venezuela to cement his Latin American revolutionary ties. As he flew out of Havana he said we can learn a lot from Cuba. Many, looking back on his five-day jaunt, will agree.

The BBC describe this trip so far as Mayor's 'Kenezuelan' PR disaster

Ken Livingstone stood in the foyer of Havana's Hotel Nacional on Monday morning betraying no signs of the public relations disaster on his hands. He was seen laughing and joking with his team of four officials as he waited to be taken on a tour of Havana's beautiful old quarter.

But he heard late the previous night that his Venezuelan plans had gone up in smoke. . . President Hugo Chavez - in the middle of a frenetic presidential election campaign - could not make much time in his diary after all to see "his new best friend" from London. . . it seemed not much more than a handshake and a brief meeting was being offered. It's possible that not even that would be arranged for sure. Mr Livingstone played host to Chavez when he visited London earlier this year and hoped to be feted in similar style. But it rapidly became clear that was not possible.

Instead he is now facing the prospect of searching questions from the London Assembly about a globe-trotting escape which has ended - according to his critics - in extreme embarrassment.

When BBC London heard he was staying in the capital Havana for longer than he had planned to stay in Caracas, the mayor found himself in a position almost impossible to defend. . . Now, he's left with an equally difficult task of suddenly talking up a Cuban visit that a few days ago he was playing down.

And it is only likely to get worse when the London Assembly probes further the purpose and the cost of a foreign affair which has soured so quickly. 

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