OK, I admit it: I've been too green for too long

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The Independent Online
Lean's law of new ministers is embarrassingly simple. I almost always read them wrong. The Environment Secretaries whom I expect to be good at the job invariably disappoint, while those I think are going to be disasters usually turn out rather well.

Take John Selwyn Gummer. His appointment four years ago - fresh from presiding over the gathering BSE crisis as Minister of Agriculture - seemed bad news. (And not just to me: "What have we done to deserve this?" mourned one top official). But he became the best Environment Secretary yet.

Then there was Chris Patten, whom I, and everyone else, expected to be a ball of fire, but who (as befitted a prominent "wet") turned out to be a damp squib. Michael Howard, incredibly, did rather well in the job: the bungling Home-Secretary-to-be deftly put together the nuts and bolts on the international treaty to combat global warming.

The exception to the rule, as to so much else, was the late Nicholas Ridley, who was just as hostile to greenery as everyone expected. But his opposition probably did more than anything to boost the surge in green consciousness of the late Eighties - making me wrong about him too.

So I should probably have been more cautious at a party at the Department of the Environment on Thursday night, when senior officials kept asking what their new bosses were like. (Such are the absurdities of our system - and the taboos against officials consorting with Opposition politicians - that hacks get to know them better than their future advisers.) But whoever heard of a journalist refusing to give an opinion?

o WHEN Edward Heath met Chairman Mao he briefly attempted small talk, asking him whether he thought the French Revolution had been a success. "It is," replied Mao, "a little too early to say."

Mao, thou shouldst be with us at this hour. For it is far too early to pronounce on the new Government. But here, as at the party, I go.

First impressions disappoint. The ministers with the best green records - Chris Smith and David Clark - seem far from the environmental action at National Heritage and the Duchy of Lancaster, while Jack Cunningham appears a curious choice at Agriculture. And Michael Meacher - whose hard work and enthusiasm did much to green Labour's agenda over the past six months - has been unfairly left out of the Cabinet.

Robin Cook should be the greenest Foreign Secretary to date. (He helped lead an anti-nuclear demonstration in the late Seventies, not the sort of thing immediately associated with, say, Lords Carrington, Howe and Home.) And Clare Short's Cabinet place demands three heartfelt cheers.

Lord Clinton-Davis - a former EU Environment Commissioner - has been appointed Minister of State in the Department of Trade and Industry, which constantly blocked green initiatives in the last government. David Clark has been put in charge of pulling together the new Food Safety Agency while Chris Smith (given a bit of chutzpah) could have quite a hand in the National Parks.

All really depends on how John Prescott - as Deputy Prime Minister the unsackable supremo of environment, transport and the regions - approaches the subject. His first concern, understandably, is to revive the regions. But he has already set out to reconcile transport and the environment, including tackling air pollution. He protests that he is "greener than Gummer", and has the necessary breadth of vision - not to speak of Cabinet clout. So, on balance, I am cautiously optimistic. You have been warned.

o PRESCOTT inherits a far greener department than it was only a few years ago, largely thanks to the man holding the farewell party on Thursday night. Tom Burke - a former head of Friends of the Earth who advised the last three environment secretaries - is the first Green to have wielded power in Britain. He, with a few others, changed the department's ethos and gave ministers extra confidence to fight their corners. But change has cut both ways. The former anarchist, who 30 years ago wore red trousers and gave a Black Power salute at his graduation from Liverpool University, now fills a pinstripe suit and flourishes a CBE.

o TALKING of appearances, a press release hits my desk (why mine?) from L'Oreal cosmetics, boasting of signing up Claudia Schiffer. "The choice of Miss Schiffer," it explains, "reflects the wish of L'Oreal Paris to associate with a personality of unparalleled international notoriety." Now this, as you know, is not that sort of column, but what can she have done? I think we should be told.