Labour's loose volcano

In a government run by control freaks, Clare Short is a minority of one. Ungaggable and probably unreformable. She says what she feels. And that's rather a lot.
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Clare Short has done it again. Only a week after infuriating the people of Montserrat with her comment that they would be demanding "golden elephants next", she returned to the fray this weekend, accusing the "reactionary end of the Foreign Office" of plotting to destroy her new department before it was established.

Not content with that, she told the Independent on Sunday that she was in danger of being sidelined by spin doctors: "It's to do with finding a scapegoat, but I'm shocked that complete misinformation can go so far," she said. "There comes a time in politics when you think, `If I have to live with this much bile and dishonesty, there's a limit to my capacity to take it,'" she added.

What is it about Clare Short? She's a politician who can never seem to button her lip, but she's now in the Cabinet and governed by collective responsibility. Like a naughty girl made a monitor she should be behaving herself.

She's in a Labour government but has frequently attacked the smooth media and spin doctoring that helped get it elected. She has risen to high level but seems to be separate from the politicking that is necessary to get there.

She is astonishingly popular with the public and the party - but not with the powers-that-be - after all she does have the habit of calling them "people in the dark" and even Tony Blair himself was described as a "poisonous voice" when he was running for party leader. Her "gaffes" keep her in the headlines but she has been hounded by the tabloids who dubbed her "Killjoy" Clare in her attempts to ban Page Three girls in newspapers, accusing her of "rampant political correctness", and even, infamously, "too ugly to be raped".

Despite the constant attacks, those who meet her talk of her warmth, her charm and her openness. "She's a woman of strong passions," said one observer. Even the austere Gerald Kaufman, the former shadow Foreign Secretary, was moved to start one newspaper article, "If there is one person in politics whom I can truly say I love, that person is Clare Short."

Clare Short is someone you cannot be neutral about. And certainly she herself is far from neutral. Her problems with the Labour party have all sprung from the fact that she is driven by some compulsion to speak what she thinks regardless of the consequences.

She herself thinks she knows why that is, saying this weekend: "Because of the person I am." She once said: "Because I'm not an in-grouper, I'm not a cynic. A lot of political journalists think you can't really be in politics if you think you can tell the truth. It's time I learnt the lesson that you can't be in politics and be genuine and not be a cynical fixer. I irritate a lot of them because I think you can."

Everyone can remember a Clare Short example of "telling the truth". She resigned from Labour's front bench twice (over the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1988 and the Gulf war in 1991). She called for a debate over the decriminalisation of cannabis when any politician knows drugs are the real no-no issue. She said that anybody earning as much as she did - an MP's basic salary was then pounds 34,000 - should be prepared to pay more tax. And she commented that Harriet Harman would have to answer to her constituents over her decision to send her son to a selective school?

Last year she was demoted - although she would not use the word - from shadow Transport to International Development after storming out of a live television interview when she was asked about Labour's attitude to a Tube strike. But soon afterwards she bounced back with a frank interview in the New Statesman criticising "the people in the dark" behind Tony Blair and warning "[Tony] came along as a fresh, young, principled and decent man and some people are trying to turn him into a macho man, not seeming decent and principled. I know they are doing it because they think it's the way to win, but I think they're making the wrong judgement and they endanger our victory."

It's the sort of record that one would think would condemn a politician to the back benches forever, destined to be a thorn in the leadership's side from a safe distance. But that is to reckon without her personality.

People identify with Clare Short because of the tough times in her personal life she has been through. Maybe after all she's been through, to dissemble seems a waste of time. Born of Irish immigrants, she rose via university to become a high-flying civil servant in the office of Labour Home Office Minister Alex Lyon. She and Lyon fell in love, and she divorced her first husband and resigned. In 1981 she married Lyon and shortly afterwards entered Parliament. But he lost his seat and then contracted Alzheimer's disease.

She nursed him to the end, in September 1993. She felt angry that his dignity died before he did and when asked how she coped, she said: "That's what life is like. You have to cope, so I did.''

Until last year she kept it secret that she had fallen pregnant at 18 and, despite marrying the father (her first husband Andy Moss) she gave up her son Toby Graham for adoption. She was not to see him for more than 30 years.

Describing how she felt when she was reunited with Toby, she told The Independent, who revealed the story last October: "[Before] it was a loss and pain in me... it was just that this big thing at the centre of my life was painful. Of course, now I feel fabulous - it isn't painful any more."

"She speaks her mind. She's incredibly honest," says one admirer. "She is so heartfelt about things. She talks in an open fashion, in a very disarming way. She becomes confessional very quickly."

And she is not quite as rebellious as you might now think. As shadow Transport Secretary she supported Gordon Brown against John Prescott when Prescott wanted a pledge that at least part of the railways would be brought back into public ownership. And when Liz Davies, the hard-left lawyer, was rejected by the NEC as candidate for Leeds North East, it was Clare Short, the one with most credibility both as erstwhile left-winger and as spokesperson on women, who came marching out of the meeting to tell the press why Davies was banned.

"That was a very important way of making sure that Blair had the support of the left wing," says a political commentator. "It is as significant as Prescott's support over OMOV [one member one vote]."

Political sources also suggest that the decision to "tolerate" rather than "slap down" Clare is seen as the most effective damage limitation. "The members of the shadow cabinet should be in the Cabinet and Blair took the decision that he couldn't drop too many people," says one observer. "She has a lot of support. It would have been quite provocative to drop her, so Blair has shown a lot of forbearance."

"The initial approach saying she was off message and punishing her didn't work," says another and one reason for this is her popularity - when the spin doctors polled people before the election "they found more people knew about Clare Short and her long-lost son than the new pledges Labour were fighting the election on".

But how long can Clare's role as Labour's conscience be sustained? While there is tolerance of her outspokenness, she is already falling behind those of similar political persuasion. David Blunkett is from the same soft-left background but avoiding such outspokenness has brought him one of the heavyweight jobs in cabinet as Education Secretary while Short languishes in International Development. And commentators fear for her future if she continues to remain as outspoken. "She can't as a minister go on slagging off other ministers and departments as she has this weekend," said one yesterday. "She just can't carry on doing that sort of thing."

Talking of her critics this weekend she said: "Maybe some of the bile is designed to say that, in politics, only cynics need apply. Otherwise we will make it unbearable for you." Supporters fear unless she tones herself down she may end up making it unbearable herself

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