Margaret Beckett: 'Somebody clearly wants my job. But you wonder if these people are living in the real world'

The Monday Interview: Environment Secretary
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The Independent Online

Margaret Beckett is nothing if not a survivor. The only woman who ever served as leader of the Labour Party is also the only woman to have served in the Cabinet for the entire eight years and six months since Labour came to power.

And among all the raw, inexperienced politicians who made up that first Labour cabinet in 1997, she stood out as almost the only one with previous government experience. This makes some people think that the time is long overdue when the old trooper should hang up her boots and retire to her famous holiday caravan in Derbyshire. Reports and rumours that Mrs Beckett is on the way out have been many.

But at 62, she is still dashing from country to country, fighting Britain's and Europe's corner in immensely complicated international negotiations. Last week, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs chaired the EU's negotiations on sugar trade. The rest of the world wants Europe to stop dumping subsidised sugar on the world market. After several days of talks, Mrs Beckett emerged having brokered a "historic" deal that will cut EU sugar prices by a third over four years, and cut production by 6 million tons.

This week, it is Montreal, for the world negotiations on climate change, sponsored by the UN. From there, she will fly direct to Hong Kong, for the next round of the World Trade Organisation ministerial talks. From Hong Kong, to Brussels, to chair the regular session of EU environment ministers. And she has no intention of letting up.

"When people write things like 'Tony Blair is going to put someone new in that job' you wonder are those people living in the real world?" she scoffed.

"I worked out the other day that will be my 11th set of major international negotiations, on agriculture or the environment, since 2001. In all of that time, this is definitely the most concentrated period. Around the time of the [May] election, somebody said I had made up my mind to stand down.

"Had I done so - or indeed had Tony moved me, which is in his gift to do - I would have felt extraordinarily sorry for whoever it was who inherited the sugar reform, and Montreal, and the World Trade Organisation negotiations with just a few weeks of experience. I think that would have been heroic." Unusually for a politician, Mrs Beckett does not assume that these stories are invented by journalists. Her suspicions are directed at younger, job-hungry MPs. "Somebody clearly very much wants my job," she said. "None of those stories are remotely true ... Somebody said to me, you must do a really interesting job as there is a queue of people absolutely desperate to do it."

Mrs Beckett's great political strength is that she does not make mistakes. In a world of high-flyers, she is a down-to-earth sort, living a down-to-earth life. Since David Blunkett's departure she could claim a campaign medal for being the cabinet minister who had risen from the hardest childhood, if she wanted to.

Her father, Cyril Jackson, a carpenter, became an invalid when she was three, and died when she was 12. Her schooldays were dominated by her father's illness, the family's poverty, and by her parents' religious devotion.

But unlike Mr Blunkett, she has not been seduced by London social life since reaching the top. She remains devotedly married to Leo Beckett, whom she met in the 1970s when she was the MP for Lincoln, their lifestyle symbolised by those caravan holidays. In Mrs Beckett's manner, there is still a trace of the former head girl of the Notre Dame convent, in Norwich. Almost the only thing racy about her is the choice of artwork that decorates the Secretary of State's office at the Department of Environment. Ministers choose their own décor, and Mrs Beckett selected some fine drawings of nude or semi-nude women.

The Environment Secretary describes herself as a "terrible pessimist" - and certainly, she cannot be accused of going in to the Montreal summit brimming with confidence that there will be any meaningful deal on dealing with climate change. All the fine sentiments that came out of the Gleneagles summit in July and other informal negotiations could melt away in the heat of hard negotiations, she warned. Her only "optimistic" prognosis is that the Montreal talks cannot possibly be as difficult as the previous round, in Argentina.

"But of course the point about the United Nations process is that is where people commit themselves to things. The question is to what extent will people feel able to commit themselves to some future process of work on a new framework, on something that follows the Kyoto Protocol in 2012."

She also loyally defended Tony Blair against accusations that he has backed down over the necessity of controlling emissions of carbon dioxide. Fears that the Government is buckling under American pressure were raised when Mr Blair told an environmental conference earlier this month that "the blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge". But Mrs Beckett claimed that it is only because of Mr Blair that the US and other governments are talking about climate change at all.

"People don't realise that a year ago in Buenos Aires it was only just possible at the very, very last minute to squeak through an agreement to do or say or consider anything that even had the word 'future' in it, or any phrase that could be interpreted as committing the global community to talking about the future. Eventually, there was a very, very restricted agreement to a seminar at technical level to take place this year. Since then, Tony has taken the whole thing by the scruff of the neck and moved it forcibly on to the agenda."

But she is scathing about environmentalists who think the way to achieve results is to confront the US and other governments reluctant to talk about targets for cutting emissions, and hope to shame them by allowing talks to break down. "Of course, you find lots of people ... who will tell you that what we have to do is just go in there to instruct the Americans that they will reach agreement and they will sign up to targets, and we want those targets agreed by 2008. I call it the 'new imperialism' myself ... And it's actually rather insulting, but any approach of that kind will be wholly counter-productive."

One reason for this bashfulness could be that Britain's own record on carbon dioxide emissions is far from perfect. Emissions have increased in the past two years, making it likely that the Government will miss its self-imposed target for 2020. Some have suggested transport policy is to blame, for provoking travellers to abandon public transport in favour of cars. Mrs Beckett loyally does not utter a word of criticism of past or present transport ministers. She claimed the problem is the same across the northern hemisphere.

Some have also suggested that in a desperate effort to cut carbon emissions, Mr Blair has decided to order the construction of new nuclear power stations, and that Mrs Beckett - an old opponent of nuclear power - has changed her mind under his influence. She says not. She insists that she had never completely ruled out that nuclear power might become a viable means of keeping down atmospheric pollution, but she is no more convinced now than she has ever been, because of its hidden costs and the problems of waste disposal. She also emphasised that if a decision is made to build a new generation of power stations, they will not be producing energy by 2020.

So, does she think the Commons defeat has damaged Mr Blair's authority? "That was certainly not helpful," she replied. "On the other hand I think it's too early to judge." And when Mr Blair steps down, does she think Mr Brown should step into the job unchallenged? "I am absolutely clear that whenever Tony Blair stands down - whoever replaces him as the leader - it's absolutely in the interests of the Labour Party to have a comradely handover of power."

I suggest that implies that she does not want a contest. Without a flicker of expression, she repeated her previous answer, word for word. Mrs Beckett does not leave hostages to fortune.

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