Comment: Not their natural stance, but Straw and Byers are doing the right thing

Steve Richards
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SO GENERAL Pinochet will not be on the next plane out to Chile, and Rupert Murdoch is not to be Manchester United's next owner.

When these two stories broke in the early autumn only the most reckless of gamblers would have put money on this cautious Labour Government taking the progressives' line in both cases. When Murdoch waved his millions in the direction of Old Trafford most informed opinion assumed that the club would be his. Similarly, ever since Pinochet began his pampered incarceration in Britain, acres of print have confidently predicted an early return to his country.

Both cases have been uniquely awkward for the Government, as they demanded clear-cut decisions within a rigid timescale that threatened to alienate influential parts of the still-broad New Labour coalitions.

This is not the way Blairites like to do business. Awkward coalition- busting decisions are either postponed - the single currency, electoral reform, transport policies that might hit those poor old middle-England car-lovers - or modified in such a way as to keep both sides almost happy.

The right to roam? Give the ramblers a statutory right, but appoint a leading opponent as chair of the Countryside Agency. The minimum wage? Introduce the measure, but at a low enough rate to keep the CBI, previously a fierce opponent, on board.

On Pinochet and Murdoch on the other hand there was no third way. Nor could ministers rule that both would be best dealt with once the next general election was safely out of the way.

The decisions illustrate that even the newest of New Labour ministers, Jack Straw and Stephen Byers, can dance to the progressives' beat. When the chips are down, they are utterly different beasts to the Conservatives who preceded them. A Tory home secretary would have sent Pinochet packing long ago, while under a Conservative government Murdoch would already be looking forward to his first FA cup final as the authorised new owner of the club.

Even so, neither decision can be taken as a sign that the Government's consensual Third Way is about to be replaced. The Government on both occasions made the politically safest decisions, which happened also to be the more progressive. For both Straw and Byers would have risked far greater uproar by going the other way.

On Pinochet the instinctive reaction of New Labour was on show from the beginning. Peter Mandelson showed unguarded delight at the dictator's arrest, in a BBC interview the day after. Straw himself had led student demonstrations against his most prominent prisoner in the Sixties. Even so, if the fate of the General had been entirely in the hands of this Government he might have been sent home.

America made clear its disapproval of the extradition. The Sun strongly opposed it, as did other influential right-wing papers.

If ministers had been forced to stick their heads above the parapet and take on their powerful allies in the United States and The Sun without any outside ammunition, the outcome might well have been different.

But the Law Lords provided the ammunition to reinforce ministerial instinct. Admittedly the Law Lords handed Straw much less ammunition in their second judgment, by sharply narrowing the scope of torture-related crimes for which the dictator could be charged. But Spain has supplied evidence of many more torture cases which had been allegedly committed after the new cut-off date of 1988.

The principle behind Straw's original decision to extradite was not challenged by the Law Lords' revised judgment.

Straw would have become embroiled in a huge political row had he reversed his earlier decision, even if he had attracted the fleeting congratulations of The Sun and Lady Thatcher. What is more, it is quite possible that Pinochet would still have faced trial in London, a situation more fraught with political tension than sending him off to Spain. In a tight corner Straw took the least turbulent option available to him.

Superficially the Murdoch case seems even more nightmarish, but it turned into a piece of cake for the Government. It has always been far too glib to suggest that when Murdoch clicks his fingers Blair delivers. For a start, Murdoch himself is not daft enough to expect or demand total subservience.

In this case, the Government, which likes to portray itself as a friend of football fans, was never going to cave in without considerable thought and calculation. These considerations would have included the fact that the relationship with the Murdoch press (or, more precisely, The Sun - The Sunday Times and The Times, it is often forgotten, follow a right- wing agenda and are often hostile to the Government) has changed a little. Blair's tentative support for the euro has seen to that.

But there will have been a wider calculation. While the Government is so popular, there is little chance that Murdoch will shift his alliance to the Conservatives.

As with the Law Lords and Pinochet, the Government had a shield in the form of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The moment the case was placed in their hands some of its sting was removed. For Byers to have overturned the Commission's recommendation would have reinforced the stereotype of craven government kneeling at Murdoch's empire. The easier political choice was to block the deal.

Those who anticipate the appearance of Blair on The Sun's front page as an upside-down stuffed parrot are in for a disappointment. Doubtless the paper will try to stuff him in a number of ways when, or if, the euro campaign intensifies. But I hear that Murdoch does not blame the Government for his failure to become Manchester United's owner. Instead he is venting his ire on those at BSkyB who blew it. The relationship between Blair and Murdoch will endure, while the fans should be grateful that the Government blocked the bid.

In a Government as political as this one, ministerial reflections in advance of their decisions will have ranged widely. This is a Government that is progressive when it is popular to be so, daring only when it has to be. Jack Straw and Stephen Byers had to be daring, but they chose ways which would be the least unpopular.

No matter: both of them came to the right decisions. Torture is torture whether it took place before or after 1988. An empire's dominance of football and its coverage in the media was obviously anti-competitive, as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission declared.

Quite right, too, that two pragmatic, cautious politicians have given pause for thought both to a former dictator and to the most powerful media magnate in the world.

The writer is political editor of the New Statesman