Politics: The Week In Westminster - Blair hives off Cornwall while embracing the euro

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PRIME MINISTER took the first risk of his premiership by moving the debate on joining the euro "up a gear".

For Mr Blair nothing in Government policy has officially changed, but the publication of the national changeover plan provides further evidence that he is banking on the "inevitability" argument to assist his now open desire to embrace the single currency.

Focus groups have presumably told him that Europe is not an issue on the doorstep and will not inhibit his prospects at the next general election.

Mr Blair's action opens clear water between himself and William Hague and is calculated to reinforce the split within the Conservative Party. "Operation Hoover", the Labour offensive to win over Tory grandees to its various projects, will now gather pace. Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Sir Edward Heath have every incentive to put the euro ahead of their support for Mr Hague.

If Mr Blair's strategy can further divide the Tories he believes he will negate the risk of losing some support in the polls. But if there are signs that public opinion cannot be moved in favour of the euro he will simply delay a referendum until he is certain he can win.

The reputation for surefootedness of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, took a severe knock with the publication of the Stephen Lawrence report. The bungled attempt to injunct the press against the backcloth of deliberate selective leaking to a journalist by someone in the Home Office was compounded by the subsequent retraction, after formal publication, of the appendix listing names of police informants.

Calls for Mr Straw's resignation were unjustified but the way in which the Home Office withdrew the offending appendices without volunteering an immediate statement to Parliament gave Roger Gale (C, Thanet North) an opportunity to make political capital against Mr Straw during a point of order.

This eventually led to a tetchy, defensive "not me guv" attitude from the junior minister, Paul Boateng, when he was dragged kicking and screaming to the House yesterday.

No one can deny that, but for Mr Straw, there would have been no inquiry at all. There had been years of resistance from his Tory predecessor, Michael Howard. But to dump the blame on Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, the inquiry chairman, was a tad disingenuous.

All these alarms and excursions threatened to divert attention from the main conclusions of the report. Mr Boateng inflamed an already delicate situation when he described the Home Office as no more than "printer and publisher" of the report.

Mr Straw must be praying that he is not let down by any further departmental incompetence and will be anxious that the leak inquiry does not finger any of his junior ministers. If it does, a head will roll.

Tony Lloyd, the junior Foreign Office minister with day-to-day responsibility for Sierra Leone, was at the centre of the latest row between ministers and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Tories on the committee accused him of dishonest, hair-splitting written answers worthy of Bill Clinton when detailing his first sight of its report. This was leaked to him in advance by Ernie Ross (Lab, Dundee West) who resigned from the committee last week. The relationships between minister and officials, and ministers and select committee, are now at breaking point.

For consecutive weeks Mr Cook and his chief fall guy, the Permanent Secretary Sir John Kerr, have been listed to appear together before the committee. Both hearings were mysteriously cancelled. The Tories have now taken up the cudgel and called an opposition debate on the issue next Tuesday.

The publication of the latest register of members' interests yields different attitudes towards the goodies they are offered during visits abroad.

Nine MPs were guests of the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, which took them to Bahrain last October. Of these, five declared watches given by the Amir of Bahrain, two of whom donated the gifts to charities. Interest surrounds the remaining four: - Ashok Kumar (Lab, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland), Andrew Love (Lab, Edmonton), Ken Purchase (Lab, Wolverhampton North East) and Claire Ward (Lab, Watford) who made no declarations of the expensive jewellery. Did they offend the Amir so that he decided not to favour them? Did they say "no thanks"? Or perhaps they have simply had a lapse of memory. In the past the Amir's gift watches (Baum and Mercier) have been valued well in excess of pounds 1,000.

The most unusual gifts received were a Penny Black stamp from the Electricity Association to Labour's Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) and a BBC teaspoon "bent and signed by Uri Geller" to Ann Widdecombe (Con, Maidstone).

Peter Mandelson finally declared his home loan. But Commons rules only appear to require the registration of the act of borrowing. There was no mention of the loan under Geoffrey Robinson's entry.

Andrew George (Lib Dem, St Ives) has been driven crazy by the inability of the Government to decide which department of state is responsible for answering his concerns about the future of the Cornish language.

Mr George has been leading the campaign to ensure that Cornish is regarded as an officially recognised language.

So far the matter has been considered successively by the Department for Education and Employment; the Home Office; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Department of the Environment, Transport and The Regions; and the Welsh Office.

Mr George finally wrote to the Cabinet Office to determine responsibility before launching an adjournment debate on the issue. But he was amazed to see Joyce Quin preparing to answer the debate. Ms Quin is a Minister of State at the Foreign Office. At a stroke Mr George appears to have struck a blow for Cornish independence, to the chagrin of Scottish and Welsh nationalists.