A rare national treasure in peril

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The Independent Online
Clare Short, one of the few outspoken, unpredictable people left at a senior level in British politics, was the main casualty of last night's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. She was demoted from transport to overseas development - a job traditionally given to unfashionable women MPs such as Joan Lestor and Ann Clywd.

Though not universally admired, Ms Short has stood out by saying in public things that she self-evidently believes - and it is for that precisely that she has been punished by Tony Blair.

She has called for a debate on the possible legalisation of cannabis. She has suggested that people on relatively high salaries, close to her own, ought to pay more tax. She compounded her crime by telling a journalist about the "Ring Tony at home" messages on her electronic pager which followed.

Only last weekend, she annoyed his office with attacks on the obsession with tax cuts and low inflation, and the "myth of the happy family and the permanent marriage".

A courageous MP, she had tried to undo the damage of years of criticism of Mr Blair. Earlier this year, she generously conceded that an "upper- middle-class man" had not been her idea of who should be Labour leader, but that she had been wrong: "It didn't work for me, but it works for the rest of the country."

Like another outspoken politician, John Prescott, Clare Short had carried out some of the dirtier jobs of party discipline for Tony Blair. But like Mr Prescott, she has struggled in recent days to avoid condemning strikers without seeming overtly disloyal to the Labour leader. She sealed her fate on the afternoon of the Shadow Cabinet elections when she walked out of a television interview, sweetly refusing to answer a question about the Tube strike.

Middle England may be relieved. But if she is on the way out of the Labour leadership, British politics will be the poorer. There must be a place in national life for someone who says: "If I have to be calculating about what I say, I will cease to be a proper human being."