Two years ago, in a short live interview on BBC Radio, Ken Livingstone answered a straightforward question with a mad historical analogy about Hitler supporting Zionism and his world changed in an instant.
He was pursued by dozens of journalists into a disabled toilet. A fellow MP, John Mann, screamed in his face that he was a ‘Nazi apologist.’
He has been suspended from his party. He has become, frankly, a laughing stock.
On dozens of occasions since, the former Mayor of London has defended this needlessly provocative remark by saying his “great weakness has always been to tell the truth.”
But even among the political class, a person less likely to give a straightforward answer to a straightforward question you would struggle to find.
I spent more than an hour sitting around his kitchen table in North London, trying to find an explanation for why neither he nor Jeremy Corbyn will accept the conclusions reached by the UK, US and French governments: that Russia is behind the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Only very rarely do the answers venture into the twenty first century. Instead they involve, and this is an edited list: a wild claim that JFK was assassinated by the American intelligence services; US plans to drop atomic bombs on ten Russian cities at the end of the Second World War; the Suez crisis; the US bombing of Vietnam in 1964; the murder of the Miami Show Band in Northern Ireland in 1975; Obama’s cold war with China; the overthrow of the Mossadeghi government in Iran; the oil deal between Franklin D Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud; the 1954 transfer of Crimea and the Tasmanian Genocide.
“It’s quite possible that what May is saying is true,” is how he begins his first attempt to answer the question. “That it was authorised, but you have to ask: Why didn’t they kill him a lot earlier? Why use an agent that makes it looks like it’s definitely Russia? There are so many easy ways of killing people.”
At this point Livingstone reaches across the table for his own paperback, Livingstone’s Labour, published by him in 1989, which has two blue post it notes carefully placed on relevant pages.
“And it just takes me back to the book I wrote in 1989. I’ve got a whole chapter devoted to the fact that all through our lives we have been lied to about Russia.
“I grew up in the Cold War where all we were told about Russia was ‘threat, threat, threat.’ There was never any threat at all. All Stalin wanted was this barrier of East European states under his control. He had no plan for an attack on the west.
“Then When Gorbachev came along and said ‘let’s get rid of all our nuclear weapons’ – it was the fucking Americans that said no.
“There has been a huge distortion of truth about Russia, and here [with Sergei Skripal], here it all is again I think.”
I ask for clarification. That he believes he and the rest of us are being deliberately misled, by our own government, over what they know about the poison attack in Salisbury.
“Well, it could well all turn out to be true. In thirty years we’ll find out. But look at the lies we were told about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. These lies have been there all my life.
“I remember when I was eleven, the British government said it was invading Egypt to break up the war between Israel and Egypt. In fact it had asked Israel to invade Egypt as an excuse for it to invade.”
Over the past fortnight, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has twice stood at the despatch box of the House of Commons and refused to accept the conclusion of the British intelligence services – that the Russian state is behind the attack. Mr Corbyn has been disowned by many of his backbenchers. His official spokesperson has made glib reference to the intelligence that was produced in the buildup to the Iraq war, calling it “problematic.”
Such events have prompted speculation that, if we are entering something like a new cold war, it is not clear whether the Labour leadership are even, by instinct, on the UK’s side.
To this end, I ask him a very straightforward question. Who is currently the more malign influence on world affairs: Russia or the West?
“I’m not on Putin’s side. His approach to things like homosexuality are appalling. You can define him as a dictator. He does terrible things. But the idea that the Russians are bad and the Americans and us are good – I’m sorry. All my life we’ve been crushing progressive governments.
“What people like Jeremy and me have always done all our political careers is try and find out the truth.” At this point we are off down a path that leads to Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam in 1964, by way of Livingstone’s own maiden speech in Parliament in 1987, which concerned the murder of the Miami Show Band in County Down, supposedly at the hands of rogue elements in MI5, and then in the direction of a startling claim.
“Governments all over the world do terrible things. Often to their own people. Look at Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t trust his own military.
“Within a few weeks of becoming President he is raging about the lies he is getting from the Pentagon. He is assured at the briefing on the Bay of Pigs that there will be no direct American intervention, but they knew that would have to provide air support. As soon as the landings happen he is told ‘we have to provide air support.’ He was lied to.
“In that three years afterwards he was starting to distance himself from the military.
“Initially I believed what we were told. That it was one mad person, Lee Harvey Oswald. But individuals that commit assassinations really want to do it for fame, and yet he was denying it just before he was shot.
“The surgeons who were in Dallas when the body was brought in to the hospital were absolutely clear: He had been shot from behind and he had also been shot from the front. And that was all suppressed.
“I doubt we will ever know, but I don’t believe for one minute that it was a sole random killing. At that stage, the links between the CIA and the Mafia were horrendous. We will never know the truth.”
And to that end, apparently, the attempt on Sergei Skripal’s life and the successful one on JFK are linked.
“It could be rogue elements inside Russia,” he says, “in Salisbury. If it can be proved it was done by the Russian government you should extradite, you should bring prosecution, but you can’t take this stance before there’s proof.”
This answer is similar to ones Livingstone has given in interviews to the Russian state broadcaster Russia Today, which is widely condemned as a Kremlin propaganda station. That Mr Livingstone’s words have precisely echoed those of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has not gone unnoticed.
“You think the BBC isn’t our propaganda station?” he says. “Every broadcaster tends to put their nation’s side of things. I’ve never been on Russia Today and felt like I’m being pushed into anything. They ask you questions, you answer, they broadcast it.
“The idea the BBC doesn’t broadly portray Britain’s interests is nonsense. They do. That’s what I expect American and Russian TV programmes to do as well, and that’s by and large what they do. If they spent all their time exposing all the awful things their own governments had done, they’d end up being closed down.”
A couple of weeks ago, Labour extended Livingstone’s suspension from the party, while it conducts another investigation into the allegations of anti-semitism made against him.
Livingstone wishes to make two things clear. The first is that he “never said Hitler was a Zionist.” That formulation has been put on his words by the media, assisted by “John Mann shouting at me that I was a Nazi apologist in front of fifty journalists.”
And the second is that the outrage about his comments from within certain sections of the Labour Party, is politically motivated.
But he did use the phrase “Hitler was supporting Zionism”, which I suggest is an incredibly incendiary way of phrasing an already contentious historical incident, in which Nazi Germany deported Jews to Palestine in the 1930s, confiscating their land and assets as they did so.
“No, it’s not incendiary. Boats were leaving Hamburg to get them to Palestine. That is supporting Zionism.”
He again repeats claims that Jewish people have stopped him in the streets to tell him what he said was right. Pushed for a guess on the number of Jewish people who have done this, he says, “thirty or forty.”
“I was stopped by hundreds of people,” he says. “Jews have the highest standard of educational achievement of any group in the country. They are more likely to know about their history than anybody else. And what I said was right.
“All the criticism has been from people who are trying to get rid of Jeremy. Lots of people said it’s nothing to do with anti-semitism. I was running around supporting Jeremy all the time. That’s why you had 100 Labour MPs demand I was expelled. Not because they thought it was anti-semitic.”
He also points out that “since the general election, when Jeremy did so well, no one has raised it again.”
That’s not true. They have. It has been raised on a number of occasions. Luciana Berger, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, who is herself Jewish, tried again to have Mr Livingstone expelled from the party at its annual conference in September.
“A handful of strong, pro-Israeli MPs like Wes Streeting bring it up but that’s it.”
And they do so because they are politically motivated, not genuinely angry by it?
“They know their history. They know what I said was right. What they are upset about is that I have spent all my career criticising the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. And here we are, seventy years on, almost to the day since the creation of the state of Israel and you’ve still got millions of Palestinian refugees living in squalor in Gaza and other refugee camps.”
Mr Livingstone likes to style himself as a “house husband”, since losing the Mayoral election in 2012. He says he has told Jeremy Corbyn the same thing he told Ed Miliband, that “I will do anything you would like me to do.”
Corbyn and Ken, of course, go way back. But even with friends in very high places, a way back to the frontline from here looks incredibly difficult.