Labour MP Ken Livingstone told MPs yesterday he believed the government could be persuaded to support Conservative proposals for an elected deputy mayor of London.
Although the amendments proposed to the Greater London Authority Bill when it began the first day of its committee stage on the floor of the commons were defeated by 120 votes to 371, Mr Livingstone said that as the Bill was debated in standing committee and in the lords there was 'every possibility that my party could be persuaded to see the strong advantages in the Conservative proposals'.
Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, thought to be a potential candidate for London mayor, also supported arguments put forward by Richard Ottaway, Conservative MP for Croydon South, who said it was important the role of deputy mayor be more clearly defined and that it should be independent of the assembly. The Bill made it clear that the deputy mayor had a significant role to play within the new London authority, but by providing that he or she will be appointed by the mayor from the ranks of the assembly muddied the water.
'The mayor will have his mandate and policies, and the power to implement them. The assembly's role is to scrutinise the exercise of that power and, to the limited extent permitted under the Bill, to support the mayor or exercise a check on matters with which it disagrees. Those checks and balances are an essential ingredient of the separation of powers'.
The requirement that the deputy mayor be appointed from the assembly confused that and put the deputy in a position of fundamental conflict. Arguments that the deputy mayor was no different from that of a minister in the commons were flawed because he was elected on the same manifesto as the prime minister, who derived his authority not only from his party but because he could command a majority in the House.
Mr Ottaway continued: 'The mayor of London will have his own mandate and his own executive powers, and he will derive no authority from the assembly. The very point of the assembly is to keep the mayor in check and to scrutinise the mayor, so the potential for conflict is clear. It is not possible to straddle the two.
'The power to appoint the deputy mayor from the assembly gives the mayor unacceptable patronage. every member of the ruling coalition will know the deputy mayor can be sacked at the mayor's whim, and any one of them could take his place. In an assembly in which only 13 votes make up a majority, it would be pretty easy to keep those members in line, because they live in hope of becoming deputy mayor.
'Our second reason for opposing the government's proposals is that, as the deputy mayor will perform many of the mayor's functions, the public should know at the time of the election who the deputy mayor will be. We believe that he should run on a joint ticket with the candidate for mayor, so that it would be clear to all voters who he is, what his background is and what skills he would bring to the job. That would make the process clear, transparent and accountable'.
Mr Ottaway added that the formula would allow a politician to run as mayor with a person experienced in business, for example, as deputy.
'Members of the assembly will be busy enough without one of them having to take on the extra duties of deputy mayor. Pressures on the mayor and his deputy will be substantial. The deputy mayor will have little time to perform his role as an assembly man as well. Secondly, under our proposals, in the event of the mayor's incapacity, the deputy mayor would become the mayor, having already been endorsed by the public'.
Mr Livingstane, MP for Brent East, said Mr Ottaway's amendments and speech had 'a lot of merit; it was consistent and coherent'. It would be wholly wrong for someone to run as mayor without saying who they would appoint as deputy.
He added: 'The deputy's position will be one of power and influence. The Bill implies clearly that the deputy mayor will chair the police authority - although that is not 100% certain - and that is a major and important public role. No one should have to cast a vote without being absolutely clear as to whom the mayor intends to appoint as deputy. It would be bizarre if an American president were elected and announced afterwards that he was appointing someone about whom the public were completely in the dark'.
As the Bill was considered, the role of deputy mayor must be considered through later amendments. For example, if the mayor nominated the deputy mayor to the police authority on the understanding he or she would chair it, the members of the police authority - not elected but appointed by the home secretary - could conspire to prevent that happening.
He concluded: 'The deputy mayor should be directly elected, not appointed from among assembly members. I am in agreement with almost all that has been said in support of the ammendment, and I hope that my party will not reject it out of hand. Nothing undermines respect for politicians more than a knee-jerk reaction against an idea simply because it has come from our opponents'.
Mr Hughes, MP for Southwark North and Bermondsey, said Liberal Democrats could not support the amendment without further development of the Conservative idea, but the proposal was a perfectly logical alternative. It was probably better on the day after the elections for the assembly to choose who would provide an appropriate balance to the mayor rather than have the choice preordained either by a deal struck before the election or a secreta deal revealed by the mayor after the election.
A Conservative amendment to have the London assembly composed of nominees of the 32 boroughs and the City Corporation, rather than 25 drectly elected members, was defeated by 115 votes to 339.