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Izzard and Livingstone

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As political double-acts go, the avid newt-keeper and the transvestite comedian is far from a conventional soapbox duo. Particularly when it's the newt enthusiast in question is the earnest, working-class Ken Livingstone, pairing up with the flamboyant and unapologetically cosmopolitan Eddie Izzard.

But such was the scene when the former Mayor, currently neck-and-neck in the polls with Conservative rival Boris Johnson, took to the stage with his eccentric sidekick yesterday to woo students in a debate at the University of London Union.

The session was closer to a local council meeting than a heady Obama rally, with the unseasonable sunshine luring all but the most devoted, generously-bearded activists away. A row of conspicuously empty chairs at the front made the whole event feel like an exam nobody had studied for.

Livingstone, adept as ever at sensing the tone, took to shirt-sleeves and suspenders and adopted the air of a wise old confidant, looking even a little smug as a smattering of oblivious students drifted through the Union lobby.

He began with the obligatory dig at Boris Johnson - who declined to partake in the debates - painting his rival as detail-shy, short-termist and only interested in becoming Prime Minister. The people of London, he said, had been subjected to 'four years of photo opps, prize givings, ribbon cuttings and nice fluffy things'.

Izzard chimed in here, joking that while Livingstone puts London first, for Johnson 'London comes third in his list - first I think comes Boris Johnson... secondly of course the Daily Telegraph'.

Conspicuously, the former Mayor failed to deny calling his rival a 'lazy tosser' last week. But in a surprising moment of candour, Livingstone then revealed a deep sympathy for Johnson's 'absolute nightmare' of a childhood. Quick as a flash, though, he seemed to remember where he was, and the political point-scoring resumed: 'but we shouldn't have to pay for that now - frankly he should have got over it by now'.

Even so, this was a sea-change from his description of the race last year as 'a simple choice between good and evil...between Churchill and Hitler'.

Reliable as a bendy bus, Livingstone then reeled off a raft of student-friendly policies - cutting fares, electrifying the bus fleet, protecting tenants, new affordable homes, more student grants, etc. Intermingled was the expected Boris-bashing, which came to a head when he accused the Mayor of "corporate manslaughter" in dropping cycle safety measures because he was "too frightened of upsetting Jeremy Clarkson."

But for 'Red Ken' this was a rare chance to flash his socialist credentials to a younger, more receptive audience. He unleashed a full broadside against the City and the coalition, punctuated by applause from his listeners, and promised to 'use this mayoralty as a basis to try and change this government's policy'. This was hardly a hollow threat from the man who once hung a banner from County Hall displaying the unemployment count across the river to Thatcher's government in Westminster.

And with a zeal that would have spooked his counterparts in Parliament, Livingstone slammed "the corporate world that's come to dominate the Western World." He railed against government policies of the last 30 years, ruing that "we made the fatal mistake of saying the banks will lead us all to heaven, their luxury will cascade down to the rest of us... this obsession with money has been a complete dead end."

Of course, as a notoriously rebellious champion of the left wing, Livingstone is well-placed to capitalise on dissatisfaction with austerity, and did so with gusto: "I don't know whether Cameron and Osborne are cynically using the size of the deficit to drive through policies that Mrs. Thatcher only had wet dreams about... there's a chance to demonstrate to them it ain't working on May the third by voting out Boris Johnson."

And never one to shy away from controversy, Livingstone claimed that an Evening Standard article, about a ratings agency criticising his fare plans, was "dishonest" and "utterly untrue."

But this wasn't just a chance for the former Mayor to make his case. His celebrity partner and long-time Labour supporter has himself voiced ambitions for the office in 2020.

Izzard struck a crisp and energetic figure by comparison. He had no trouble charming the audience with a less gruff and - dare I say it - more Blairite approach, praising London's role in promoting multiculturalism, trade and responsible wealth creation.

The blend of the upbeat with the sensible was compelling, but Izzard's appeal to the wider electorate is untested - remember, this is the man who once described himself as "a lesbian trapped in a man's body." Whether we yesterday witnessed a budding partnership between two future mayors, or between none at all, remains to be seen.

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