Straw in quick step to limit damage

The Clare Short affair: Embarrassment for Labour as MP rekindles drugs debate with expression of liberal opinion
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The Independent Online
PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES

The controversy over Clare Short's comments on cannabis will have seriously undermined a news conference scheduled for this morning with Donald Dewar, Labour's new Chief Whip, spotlighting the Government's "lurch to the right''.

After Ms Short's articulation of the very views that Labour slated so heavily in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, was compelled to go on radio and point out that the effective legalisation of cannabis in the Netherlands had led to that country "becoming a kind of haven and centre point for trade for not only in legalised cannabis but in many illegal other soft drugs and hard drugs - and we don't want it here".

Labour was taking no chances even with its more humble backbenchers yesterday, making clear that Kate Hoey was expressing a personal view when she raised the business affairs of England soccer coach Terry Venables in the Commons last week. Mr Venables asked of Ms Hoey, a football enthusiast and former trainer, on Saturday: "Is she speaking on matters of Labour Party policy?" and claimed a campaign was being mounted against him to destroy his reputation and his life. Shadow Heritage Secretary Jack Cunningham said yesterday that "Labour has no intention of carrying our a vendetta against Mr Venables or anyone else in football".

Ms Short appeared not to be at risk of being sacked or shifted to another job last night, but Labour is acutely aware of the long-term political damage of the affair, already being recorded in Conservative Central Office files for future use.

While Mr Blair undoubtedly respects Ms Short and values her incremental conversion from holder of the left-of- centre conscience to doughty campaigner for his future occupation of No 10, yesterday's events have blown a hole in an otherwise carefully managed construction of his front bench.

Other Shadow Cabinet and frontbench spokesmen from the left who might be thought to pose a risk, such as Michael Meacher - Ms Short's predecessor at transport - and Dawn Primarolo, who serves in the Treasury team headed by Gordon Brown, have been moved to safe pastures or neutralised. While Labour will be hoping the story will prove to be a one-day wonder, the shock waves will take time to die down.

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