Montserrat has felt the full force of a Clare Short tirade. But this time she's blown it, says John Rentoul
For some weeks now, scientists studying the situation in Montserrat have been warning of an imminent cataclysmic eruption. Last weekend, it happened. The cap of the volcano blew off and the Secretary of State for International Development exploded, releasing a cloud of poisonous adjectives and raining a shower of ridicule on the island's inhabitants and their leaders.

It was not a pretty sight. But we all like Clare Short precisely because she does not have the personality-crushing self-discipline of most politicians. When she suddenly goes "off message" to expound common sense on the subject of decriminalising cannabis, or lets slip the blindingly obvious about income tax and the better-off, we cheer as she cuts through the waffly evasions of lesser talking heads. She doesn't talk like a politician, and doesn't have a politician's emotional restraint.

And last Saturday, Ms Short was very cross. She had accepted a job at the bottom of the formal rankings of Cabinet status because she believed she could make a difference to the poorest people in the world - the other thing that endears her to us is her moral ambitiousness - and here she was being badgered about some Caribbean volcano that the Conservatives had left in a shocking state of disrepair. "It's not our fault that the volcano has blown up," she told journalists through gritted teeth.

What really annoyed her was that, having risked upsetting Gordon Brown by setting a target of halving world poverty, she was now being criticised for handing out a measly pounds 2,500 a head to resettle Montserratians. But did she smile sweetly and praise the fortitude of the homeless locals? She did not. Baroness Chalker, her predecessor, would have been filmed walking briskly through the ash, listening with intent concern to the inhabitants. But Clare Krakatoa stayed in London and let rip. "It would be weak politics if I said: `They are making a noise and a row, oh dear, give them more money.' They say 10,000, double, treble, and then think of another number. It will be golden elephants next."

It was the golden elephants that did it. A vivid, headline-writer's phrase, one that Alistair Darling or Margaret Beckett would never, ever use. Not in front of journalists anyway. And journalists love the spectacle of great forces of nature at work: here was Mount Short, dormant for so many months (some even thought extinct), chucking lava, ash and smoke into the upper atmosphere.

The other attractive thing about Ms Short is that she has a point. "My department's budget is designed to help the poorest people on the Earth, and I have to be very responsible about how it is spent," she said. "We have lots of obligations to much poorer people in other parts of the world." There, she had the beginnings of a plausible case. That is always the moralist's clincher, the "Do you really need 50p more than she does?" argument. But then, being human as well as moral, she spoiled it.

"This is about a dependency culture. It is the duty of the Government to make these people safe and help them find viable livelihoods. People in Britain would not understand why we should do more than that ... When there are floods in Wales or in Scotland, people lose all their possessions, but even if they have no insurance they receive very little help." From St Clare of the Sackcloth to Lady Short of Responsible Government in three sentences. Montserrat's leaders "have to stop this game", she said. "It is bad governance." (The last time we heard that word was in the bulky, self-justificatory memoirs of Harold Wilson.) More than that, if these foreigners for whom she was accidentally responsible went on playing these "silly political games", she was going to take her bat away and not send her junior minister George Foulkes to the island, because there would be "no point holding talks".

She was fed up; she is human; she could not help herself. That is why we like her. She is not a modern political robot who goes in front of the camera to read soundbites off her pager. But taking out her political frustrations on a bunch of homeless Caribbeans for whom her government is responsible -and yet who do not have British passports - that is a bit much.

Last year The Independent launched a "Save Clare Short Campaign", to protest at Tony Blair's brutal and unnecessary humiliation of her, in demoting her from the transport portfolio. It's time for someone to launch a new campaign: to save Clare Short from herself.

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