At long last this Government faces a decision it cannot delay

What makes Jack Straw's imminent verdict on General Pinochet different is the deadline
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THIS WEEK will see a first in the life of the Government. A senior minister will make an announcement which will be followed by passionately conflicting responses in Britain and abroad. What makes Jack Straw's imminent verdict on General Pinochet so different from other potentially explosive decisions which the Government has faced is the deadline. It cannot be postponed indefinitely. This week Straw will declare on Pinochet's extradition and face a storm.

Send him home, screams The Sun. So, in a more discreet way, do the Government's close allies in the Clinton administration. On the other side, Labour MPs are united around the reverse proposition that the extradition should go ahead. They are not just fleetingly concerned. Most are passionate that the Law Lords judgment should be upheld.

Normally when the broad New Labour coalition is threatened in such a way the Government has a strategy. It is decisively indecisive. Just as we expect the clash of cymbals to usher in a period of political turbulence a more melodious tune is hit upon. So in the case of Pinochet, if there had been no deadline and the question was only a political one, I have no doubt what the Government would have done. It would have dusted down New Labour's Guide to Avoiding Divisive Decisions: "First conduct off- the-record briefings in which journalists are told that ministers have taken hard choices on the issue. The next day take some comfort at the early morning meeting in Downing Street at the flattering headlines, along the lines of "Straw to act tough on Pinochet". On the day of the supposedly controversial announcement, arrange photocalls with the cabinet minister looking suitably focused and sober. Set up interviews with junior ministers during the morning in which they urge impatient interviewers to wait for the Commons statement. By the time of the statement, Westminster is in a frenzy, so much so that most of its occupants have forgotten that no announcement has been made yet".

In this case, Straw would go on to tell a breathless world that the Government planned to issue a consultation paper outlining the "radical" principles on which it would make a decision. The Sun would be briefed that this meant Pinochet would be home soon. The Independent would be told that the principles outlined by Straw upheld the Law Lords verdict and were a giant step forward in establishing a fair and effective international law. After a brief lull, Straw would write an article suggesting that in the light of the well received consultation paper, the final decision by the Government should not be made until after the next election to allow time for the consultations.

So ends the fantasy. To some extent the Government can play these clever, but dangerous tactical games in finessing opinion for the euro and welfare reform or avoiding a divisive referendum on PR, but this decision is heading towards the Home Office at a speed the ministers cannot control. Although Straw's first inclination was to ask for an extension, he is in no position to negotiate a delay. Until now he has been a lucky Home Secretary. He has not had to face the prison escapes and riots which seemed to occur every time Michael Howard declared how tough he was on criminals. But Straw has made his good fortune. He is highly respected by his senior civil servants whereas Howard got into so many scrapes because his instinct was to always blame officials rather than accept any responsibility. In this administration it is the Foreign Office which has become the department of mishaps. Straw faces his awkward decision as one of the most respected ministers in the Government.

So in the second unexpected political eruption this month, Tony Blair has been touched by a degree of luck himself. Ron Davies caused no real political damage because his resignation preceded the revelations, or lack of them. In the Pinochet case Blair will feel relieved that it is Straw at the helm.

For a start a story with the Home Secretary's name at its centre does not excite the media in the same way as those involving Mandelson, Brown or Cook. If one of that glittering trio was faced with a similarly emotive decision journalists would hardly be able to contain themselves (look at the way the media has reported extensively on the forthcoming Mandelson decision on Rupert Murdoch's take-over of Manchester United, which has nowhere near as many ramifications as the Pinochet judgement).

The most that is being said about Straw is that if he overturned the Law Lords' ruling it would damage his chances of becoming Labour leader. That is hardly the stuff to get pulses racing. What is more, Straw's importance to Blair tends to be underestimated in the same way as the influence of some Blairite courtiers is overplayed. Of all the cabinet members, Straw's lifestyle and outlook most closely resembles Blair's. His kids go to state schools. Both have successful working wives. They are Christian Socialists. It was Straw who first raised the banner of abolishing Clause Four, braving the anger of John Smith, who was leader at the time. Blair and Straw thought as one in placing clear limits on the powers of the Scottish Parliament, whereas both are more radical in their determination to reform the Lords. On Europe, a sceptical streak which Straw has had since he worked with Barbara Castle probably echoes some of Blair's private doubts. Only on electoral reform is a difference beginning to emerge now it appears that Blair is inclined to back the Jenkins proposals, while Straw remains passionately opposed.

So for Blair the judgement on Pinochet could not be in better hands. What about for the rest of us who believe that last week's judgment should be upheld and not undermined by compromises which will prove equally problematic? It is likely that Straw will give the go-ahead for extradition this week, but I fear that will not be the end of the matter. As I wrote earlier, this Government has an aversion to the "big bang" in politics. A third way may well be sought, whether it is through sending the General back to Chile for trial or at some point in the future, when Straw's legal powers to intervene become greater and the passions surrounding the case have subsided, Pinochet's health could provide an excuse for an early return.

But in the short term the clash of cymbals cannot be avoided for once. Whatever Straw declares, the political consequences will be awkward, messy and provoke attacks from allies who are supposedly part of the New Labour cause. That is what happens in politics with the taking of genuinely hard decisions. In terms of the domestic implications, this is not just about Jack Straw. For New Labour as a whole his verdict will be a cathartic moment.

The author is political editor of the New Statesman