The Saturday Profile: Jack Straw, Home Secretary - The man who could be king

LET US paint a picture in the heroic style, of the court of King Tony. The fair-faced young PM himself sits radiant and assured in the centre. To his right, his Chancellor, the dour but handsome Brown, rests one hand on the throne, and in the other holds a scroll. Captain of the Guard, rough-hewn Jack Prescott, pike at ready and belligerent expression on his face, stands on the other side. And a group of gaudy, happy young courtiers - men and women - spill out from behind.

So the eye is not immediately drawn to the dark, lean, bespectacled figure in the corner. He, alone, is sitting at a desk writing, his clerk hovering nearby. This man wears neither ruff nor gorgeous hose, and strikes no attitude. Yet he clearly wields serious authority over the affairs of the realm. When, later, the dancing begins and Leicester and Essex dance the Notting Hill Reel, he will make his farewells and return to his family with tales of the court - just as another might relate a visit to an eccentric uncle, or to the zoological gardens. At 10 of the clock, one imagines, Mr Secretary Straw retires to bed.

But it is this latter-day Walsingham, not his showy colleagues, whom the world now tips as the man who might take over should Tony suddenly decide to spend all his time in the Seychelles. Brown has too many enemies, Cook needs a year in rehab, Prescott does not aspire; but Jack Straw is the coming man. So we should do well to get to know him better.

Certainly Labour's enemies are concerned by him. In a column in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, the writer - complaining about Straw's championing of equalising the gay and heterosexual ages of consent - compared him to Beria, Trotsky, the Gestapo and Robespierre. (I won't bore you with the tortured logic that leads from Beria to the defence of equal rights for gay people. It is clearly a side of the NKVD that most historians have somehow missed.) To many on the left, meanwhile, Straw's tentative suggestion that some teenage mothers might look more positively at the option of having their babies adopted, smacks of Keith Joseph eugenics. Both sides portray him as a puritanical authoritarian.

What most commentators do agree about, however, is that Straw has reversed one of the great political paradigms: that it is much easier to talk the talk in opposition, than it is to walk the walk in government. The post of Home Secretary is usually thought to be an unpromising launch-pad for further ambitions, fraught as it is with all kinds of contingent dangers. Yet chief constables adore him (I know, I've spoken to them), reformers generally believe he is on their side, and Middle England and the council estates unite to approve his policies.

Yet, less than three years ago he was nearly a write-off. In the debate that followed the resignation of the prisons' chief Derek Lewis, Straw seemed maladroit and badly prepared for his confrontation with the troubled Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard. After the election, knowing journalists speculated, he'd be moved aside. (Straw later revealed that a bad attack of tinnitus had made it very hard for him to hear Tory interventions, and to respond.) In the event, Tony Blair took no notice of the gossip.

An anonymous neighbour on the Essex council estate where Straw was brought up in the Fifties, once described the intense young boy as "priggish". This is often the tribute that is paid by the old and dim to the precocious and the unexpectedly mature. But, from the beginning, Straw's politics and personality were disciplined and practical, rather than flowery and demonstrative. He was brought up in a Labour family but influenced by family friends who were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and his mind ran to organisation and getting results.

The so-called paradox of Straw, the Sixties student leader, and Straw, the tough-on-crime politician, is in reality no paradox at all. In the Years of Revolt('68, '69 and '70) there were two trajectories for a young left-winger to follow. The first was to join the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation and try to bring governments down by street protests. The other was to join the long march through the institutions, beginning with the official student body, the NUS. Straw, then a law student at Leeds University, chose the latter. When he became president of the NUS, it was as a channeller of student protest, not a creator of it. Trotskyists hated him for his effectiveness, for the way in which he turned yells into briefing documents.

The task suited the man. Straw is not a romantic revolutionary, or a gesture politician. He hasn't the gift of oratory as has, say, Neil Kinnock or Tony Benn. His movement on the platform, or in the House, is economical. He is suspicious of ego and his vanities are minor; he is not half-monster, as some big politicians are. Michael Heseltine is his polar opposite.

Unlike Tony Blair, Straw is a party man. Having left the NUS he worked the Labour version of Route One to goal: local councillor, political adviser, parliamentary candidate. His mentor was the extravagantly coiffed Barbara Castle, whom Jack advised in the Seventies. When she retired from the Commons, Straw succeeded her in Blackburn, almost by divine right of succession.

A party man, then, but definitely not Old Labour. Straw held a sequence of shadow portfolios under Neil Kinnock, whose reforms he completely supported, and can claim to have been the instigator of the dropping of the old Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution, the resolution to do so having originated in his own Blackburn constituency. In this Straw was considerably in advance of many colleagues.

He is, however, only a demi-Blairite. Straw does not like Liberal Democrats much, is an opponent of electoral reform, and was not delighted by Scottish devolution on terms that left England still subsidising Edinburgh. If he is gung-ho for Europe (which he once opposed as vehemently as any in the Labour Party), he has kept very quiet about it. Yet it is an interesting comment on Straw's commitment to the collective, that Liberal Democrats working with him on the Cabinet Committee have found him pretty diligent.

The Home Secretary has sometimes found himself in the company of even more unlikely allies than the Lib Dems. Jack Straw and Paul Dacre, editor- in-chief of Associated Newspapers and scourge of adulterers, met each other when Dacre was editor of the Leeds University student newspaper, Leeds Student, and Straw was student-union president. Some have inferred from this, and from Straw's stance on crime, that the Home Secretary is a moraliser in the old-fashioned sense. This is wrong. Straw's own father (Walter, an insurance clerk and conscientious objector) left home and Jack's mother, Joan, a teacher, when Jack was 10. Straw himself was divorced after a marriage contracted when he was just 21. He is not, in that sense, at all judgemental. Straw is a man of his generation.

Certainly a family man, given to camping holidays with the kids, which may be why he was close enough to his son William to persuade the boy down to the local nick when the "Home Secretary's son tried to sell me drugs" story broke. The skill and straightforwardness with which Straw dealt with William's little error earned respect across the journalistic spectrum.

But he does loathe crime with an "I was poor, but I never mugged an old lady" kind of zeal. He is impatient of the dilettantism of the professional middle classes, and identifies with the council tenant driven to distraction by lousy neighbours. The term "public space" connotes something as valuable to Jack Straw as "private space" does to the most ardent Tory. He regards its violation by drunks, pimps, vandals and drug-takers as being akin to burglary or assault. It was this toughness that helped to neutralise the law-and-order issue for Labour at the last election - a feat that had previously proved to be impossible.

This populist toughness is linked to the dark side of Straw. He values individual liberty too lightly, and sometimes situates himself where "ordinary people" are, regardless of whether or not they are right. Nine months ago, the author Gitta Sereny revealed that she had paid the child murderer Mary Bell a sum of money for co-operating in a book about what made Bell a killer. The murders had happened 30 years before, when Bell was 11. She had reconstructed her life and in no sense could she have been said to be "profiting" from her crime. But this was not how it felt to the relatives of those killed, to the tabloid press and to the Home Secretary. Straw's open letter to The Sun (of all papers!) was a model of illiberalism.

Straw has also defended the secret services, stating this week that he has no wish to see the files compiled about him when he was young. The arguments here are complex, but it would have been reassuring had the Home Secretary not hinted that, on reflection, maybe MI5 was right to have kept him and others under surveillance. Nevertheless, such straight dealing does tend to undermine Baroness Thatcher's argument that Straw's actions over the extradition of General Pinochet smack of political calculation. No one whom I have met who knows Jack Straw agrees with this judgement.

The other, related question mark over Jack Straw concerns a possible lack of imagination. It is not just that he was a law student rather than, say, a student of art history. After all, so were Tony and Cherie. And Bill and Hillary. And we all know Bill's got a lot of imagination. But Jack Straw is not a weaver of political dreams. But neither is he a product of spin. Straw has always put his faith in simple briefers: guys who know what the policies are and who see it as their job to tell people. Conversations with Straw himself lack that frustrating, oblique quality that characterises discussions with those who are perpetually working the percentages. He is straight, blunt, occasionally dismissive, and very clear.

And I have hardly heard a bad word said about him since the May 1997 election. Of all the members of Tony Blair's court, he is the one most in possession of the elusive qualities of kingship.

Life Story

Born: John Whitaker Straw, 3 August 1946, Buckhurst Hill, Essex.

Educated: Staples Road Primary; Brentwood School; University of Leeds (LLB). Was called to the Bar in 1972.

Political career: President of the National Union of Students 1969-71; Islington councillor, 1971-78; Special adviser to Barbara Castle and Peter Shore (1974-77); MP for Blackburn since 1979; Shadow Cabinet member 1987- 97.

Other jobs: Called to the Bar, 1972, practised 1972-74; Granada TV (World In Action) staffer, 1977-79;

chairman of governors of Pimlico school 1995-98.

Family: Married his first wife, Anthea, in 1968, marriage dissolved 1978, one daughter (deceased). Married Alice Perkins in 1978, one son and one daughter.

What he says about his job:

"I don't want to preach. But in government you do have a platform and you must use it."

What they say about him: "Cunning" (Barbara Castle); "One of the government's all-round heavy hitters" (Alastair Campbell).

Hobbies: Walking, cycling, souffles.

Admires: Responsible parents and the Routemaster bus.

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