Politics: Straw can defuse the Pinochet hand grenade

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The Independent Online
WILL JACK STRAW fall victim to the Pinochet saga? For the Home Secretary, so sure-footed until now, finds his reputation at stake as he grapples with the political hand grenade thrown to him by the law lords.

Wednesday's outcome was one that he had been dreading. Mr Straw would rather the decision had been to send the general home, allowing him to wash his hands of the affair. Instead he has the nightmare of a legal wrangle that could last years, with the sick general's detention providing a continuing focal point for internal strife in Chile.

The Foreign Office will doubtless apply discreet pressure for General Pinochet's quiet return home.

But Mr Straw is brilliant at making a virtue of necessity. Witness the handling of his son's difficulties at the end of last year. So I predict he will uphold the view of the law lords, which will contrast favourably with his predecessor, Michael Howard, who was always arguing with the courts.

More importantly, he can throw huge chunks of raw red meat to Labour MPs, old and new, left and right, and build up his rating inside the party.

But he is not the only one in difficulties over this. Baroness Thatcher set a trap for William Hague with her bellicose demand for her old chum to be set free "on compassionate grounds". Mr Hague rushed to endorse this line, and must continue to defend his position without appearing to support the Pinochet regime, which may prove increasingly difficult.

Mr Hague was the week's winner, however, in Parliament, stealing the debate on the State Opening from Tony Blair. In a rip-roaring speech he trounced the Government, taking sideswipes at every minister within his sight.

He particularly riled the Deputy Prime Minister with his jibes at John Prescott's failure to secure legislation for his Transport White Paper. It proved the perfect spring board for the Leader of the Opposition to win The Spectator'sParliamentarian of the Year Award, which, with delicious timing, was presented by none other than Mr Prescott. But this time it was all smiles and handshakes as the two Yorkshiremen traded friendly banter, unable to resist the opportunity of biting further chunks out of each other.

Mr Prescott gave Mr Hague "high marks for humour, low marks for numeracy" as he protested that he was still in charge of five Bills in the new session. But Mr Hague replied that the Deputy Prime Minister "was a big target because he is a big man".

But Mr Hague still faces the conundrum of how to translate his command of the Commons into success in the polls.

His oratorical superiority echoes the speeches of Michael Foot, who often beat Margaret Thatcher in debates during the early 1980s. The image of the duffel coat prevailed, however - rather like Mr Hague's baseball cap.

The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, scored a victory for the supremacy of Parliament over the convenience of cabinet ministers' diaries by forcing the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, to attend the Queen's Speech debate on industry, education and employment.

Mr Blunkett had earlier told his shadow, David Willetts, that he had to speak at a conference at noon the next day in Harrogate and could not be present the night before in the Commons.

Mr Willetts was due to speak even earlier at the same event, but said that if he could attend the Commons then so could Mr Blunkett.

Betty agreed, saying: "The House always takes priority."

Mr Blunkett later realised that the Speaker in a bate was a terrifying prospect and duly went into the chamber to wind up the debate.

Chris Patten returned to the Commons on Thursday for a press gallery lunch, where it was hinted that he might accept an invitation to be the next EC commissioner. "Why don't they phone me up?" he pleaded in exasperation at reading reports of the suggestion.

But if the rumour of the former Tory chief whip Sir Alastair Goodlad's elevation to the job turns out to be true, could Sir Alastair, a close pal, fix it for Mr Patten to secure the by-election vacancy in Eddisbury?

Although he has taken "no decision" to return to mainstream politics Mr Patten said he was "not too grand to be a constituency MP" - but he is grand enough to lend much-needed gravitas to the Tory front bench.

Relieved of the burdens of office, John Major has taken on a new lease of life. Revelling at the prospect of becoming Sir John (he is rumoured to be the Queen's next choice as a Knight of the Garter), he has slipped into the role of elder statesman with relish.

During the Queen's Speech debate he chided ministers for attacking, when in opposition, his wait-and-see stance on the euro while noting that Tony Blair, "who accused me of sitting on the fence", is now seated squarely on the adjacent spike. But few noticed that there was also an implied criticism of Mr Hague's position when Mr Major said this was "a wise place to be".

The Government changed next week's Commons business at the last minute to enable the Euro elections closed-list Bill to be pushed through all its stages in a single day under a "guillotine" motion. It will then go to the Lords, with the ball firmly back in the Tories' court.

If they are to defeat the cut-off date of mid-January, the Tories will have to get peers to filibuster. So Mr Hague will be glad of the addition of Lord Norton of Louth to his ranks. He was Britain's youngest professor of politics when he took the chair at Hull University. A tremor of fear was felt by Labour peers as they realised, during his maiden speech, that he will be relied upon by Tories to speak frequently and at length on his encyclopaedic knowledge of every proportional representation system known to psephologists.

The 12th Earl of Dunmore (title created 1686) flew to Britain from his home in Australia to make his maiden speech in the House of Lords. The speech lasted two minutes. He ended, almost before he began, by saying: "I suspect this may prove to be my first and also my last speech in your Lordships' House."

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