The Mayor's Problem Visitor

Article excerpt

THE VENEZUELAN president, Hugo Chavez, leaves London today after a visit which, although billed as private, managed to capture a remarkable amount of public attention. Right to the last, Mr Chavez, lived up to his reputation for charismatic populism, offering cheap oil to the poor of London and damning the US President, George Bush as "the worst criminal in the human race".

His visit coincided with the US decision to ban arms sales to Venezuela, on the grounds of its support for Iran and Cuba. For those nostalgic for the politics of the Eighties, the spectacle of Mr Chavez and Mr Livingstone sharing a platform, as they did yesterday, brings back vivid memories of the Mayor's old leftist form.

The bad news for Mr Chavez is that much of the attention focused not just on his condemnation of US foreign policy, but on the less attractive aspects of his record. Mr Chavez has been harshly repressive of opponents in Venezuela and indeed yesterday, anti-Chavez demonstrators complained of being harassed by members of his entourage. Mr Chavez's economic and social programme, moreover, is wildly unrealistic and threatens his country with ruin.

Of course, that is for the Venezuelan electorate to deal with. Londoners will be more interested in why exactly it was that Mr Livingstone chose to invite such a man to be his guest, at public expense.

Perhaps the Mayor's mainstream political status - he canvassed in the council elections with Gordon Brown - means he feels his former radical credibility to be at risk. Perhaps he simply likes to wind up his opponents - as he did so successfully with the visit by the controversial Islamic cleric, Yusuf al-Quaradawi.

Whatever the reason, such antics ill befit the elected mayor of the largest city in Europe. Once, he might have got away with declaring to Mr Chavez that "Londoners stand with you, not with the oil companies and the oligarchs". Now this sort of grandstanding just sounds silly

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