Comment: Dignified Messrs Blair and Hague are not

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NINE months from a general election and a change of governing party, we usually have a rough idea of what the new administration is going to be like. In February 1980, admittedly, the full lineaments of what came to be known as Thatcherism had yet to be revealed. Margaret Thatcher's government was still dominated numerically by the hated "wets", and she was much more unpopular than Tony Blair is today.

Nevertheless the project - for Mr Blair's young friends should realise that it is not only they who can have a project - was clear enough. It was symbolised at the Treasury by Geoffrey Howe (later to become more hated than any wet) and it culminated in his 1981 Budget.

From Mr Blair's government there does not seem to be such single-mindedness. It is a strange mixture of competence and muddle, as if Sir John Gielgud were treading the boards with Abbott and Costello. Last week provided several illustrations.

Thus Mr John Prescott behaved more decisively over Eurostar's shortfall than would any of his Conservative predecessors. He also, I think, behaved correctly: for it is easier to appear decisive than to be right. But then, Mr Prescott has the rare advantage of being interested in and knowledgeable about his subject. In a rationally organised cabinet he would be Secretary for Transport, with Deputy Prime Minister tacked on if he really felt strongly about it.

As it is, he is called Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions. In this capacity he evidently feels the need to make periodic noises about global warming, the greenhouse effect, saving the whale and other topics of fashionable concern. Beneath him in his department, which oddly is the Cabinet Office, he has three ministers, one of whom is Mr Peter Mandelson.

And yet the Minister for Transport, Dr Gavin Strang, is in the Cabinet with Mr Prescott. But he is not formally under Mr Prescott's control. The departmental relationship between Mr Prescott and Dr Strang is messy, no way to run a sweetshop. Even so, Mr Prescott did well over Eurostar.

So also did Mr Blair over Bloody Sunday. Increasingly I find that reports do not correspond to the impression of my own senses. Accordingly I read that both Mr Blair and Mr William Hague were "dignified" on Thursday when the former made the announcement of the inquiry. Mr Blair may have exhibited the quality in question. Mr Hague seemed to me quite the opposite: grudging, curmudgeonly and charmless, as much so as Mr David Trimble for the Official Unionists. He is a politician I used to admire until I caught a glimpse of him on television in the wake of some disturbance dashing around in a bowler hat.

Alas, it is possible to predict with 90 per cent accuracy what a politician's attitude to the Londonderry inquiry will be by his or her attitude to Northern Ireland generally. Yet it need not be so. I have much sympathy for the Unionist position. At the same time, for instance, I have never had the slightest doubt that, under international law, most IRA prisoners are political prisoners. They may have committed ordinary crimes. But their motives for committing those offences were political.

Likewise I have never doubted that Lord Widgery's inquiry into the Londonderry killings was unsatisfactory, not only because of the evidence even then available but also because he was in the process of going off his head at the time. Indeed, there was a period in our national life, 1971-74, when both the Lord Chief Justice and the Head of the Civil Service, Sir William Armstrong, were as mad as hatters.

Certainly Widgery's mental condition was different from Armstrong's. The latter was manic; whereas the former was lapsing into a kind of senility. Scandalously his condition, which was well known to the legal profession, was concealed from the public and even from senior politicians by successive Lord Chancellors, Lords Hailsham and Elwyn-Jones. He did not resign until 1980, when he had long been quite unfit to perform his duties.

But Mr Blair most decidedly had not exhibited much dignity during Prime Minister's Questions on the previous day. I find it extraordinary that the words he chooses to direct at the Opposition on these occasions, "hopeless", "useless" and "pathetic", should be hailed in the public prints as examples of Swiftian indignation or Foxite repartee. On the contrary: they are words commonly hurled at their parents by troubled adolescents like Mr Harry Enfield's Kevin.

The context of Mr Blair's exhibition of childishness was the latest instalment in the adventures of Mr Robin Cook. It usually is. In a week which has seen Mr Blair once again sucking up - if that is the appropriate phrase - to Mr Bill Clinton, I ought to say that I do not accept the distinction between public and private life. It would have been as incomprehensible in a Greek city state as it is today in a Welsh village. It is the product partly of secular liberalism but mainly of the increasingly divided lives which most people lead, with their place of work and colleagues quite separate from their distant homes and family.

So with politicians. But what we know, or think we know, of their private lives affects our judgement of their public lives. This natural process becomes humbug when we play the game of hunt-the-issue, as in: "The issue" - occasionally varied to "the real issue" - "is security/lying/the cover- up/a question of judgement."

Mr Cook did not bring his troubles on himself except by having an affair, as many good ministers have done with impunity, from David Lloyd George to Steven Norris. Certainly he has not helped his case much lately. But the real mischief was brought about by Mr Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary. What we old journalists have been brought up to call a Sunday newspaper was about to publish an account of Mr Cook's affair with Ms Gaynor Regan. On the Saturday evening, Mr Campbell summoned Mr Cook from a room at Heathrow Airport whence he was about to embark on a far-flung holiday with Mrs Cook. He gave Mr Cook 10 minutes to make up his mind about whether he was going to stay with Mrs Cook.

The wretched, bullied Foreign Secretary obediently complied as I should not have done and announced in the most public manner conceivable, to the watching millions on television, that he had been having an affair and intended to leave his wife. I still have no idea whether Mr Cook wanted to take this step. He - indeed, all three parties concerned - might well have preferred to continue with the existing arrangement. We do not know. Thousands of respectable citizens in similar circumstances prefer so to do. People choose to lead their lives in all kinds of ways.

It was no part of Mr Campbell's duties to try to make an honest woman of Ms Regan. Poor girl, no wonder she is reminiscent of Tommy Handley's Mona Lott, whose catchphrase, it may be remembered, was: "It's being so cheerful as keeps me going." Mr Campbell, in classic Fleet Street fashion, mounted what is called a spoiling operation in the trade. In so doing he intervened in the lives of three people and caused a good deal of trouble all round. Instead he and Mr Cook should have echoed the Duke of Wellington when a woman tried to blackmail him: "Publish and be damned!"

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