The Clare v Liz turf war

The two Labour women are literally not talking, writes Stephen Castle
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ONE is a darling of the Labour Party and the left, the other a peer and close friend of Tony Blair. Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, and Baroness Symons, a junior Foreign Office minister, have little in common except that both want to control aid to Britain's last colonial territories.

Last week the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, angered several colleagues (Ms Short very much included) by floating proposals for a unit to deal with the dependent - or overseas - territories headed by Lady Symons. An old-fashioned Whitehall turf war now rages over who controls what. Between the two women, the chemistry is not good.

Ms Short's department last week let it be known that any comparison between the two was inappropriate given the difference in their seniority. Ms Short is a Cabinet minister, Lady Symons holds the most junior of ministerial posts as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary. Her ladyship is said to believe Ms Short is - to use the word Mr Cook deployed recently against a former employee - impossible.

The two are, says a source, "chalk and cheese". Ms Short is known for her criticism of New Labour spin-doctoring. A Labour veteran, she combines a popular profile and Cabinet job with a critical approach to facets of New Labour. Ms Short's publications in Who's Who include: "Talking Blues: a study on young West Indians' views of policing", and "Dear Clare ... this is what women think about page 3" - following her campaign against the Sun's page three girls.

Lady Symons arrived at ministerial office through white-collar unions rather than elective politics. One MP thinks that only 10 of his 658 colleagues would recognise her. Until 1996 Liz Symons was general secretary of the union that represents top civil servants, the First Division Association. Her influence extends to the heart of government, through her ties with Mr Blair and through her partner, Philip Bassett, a senior journalist on the Times who last month joined Downing Street's Strategic Communications Unit. She is able and efficient but, more to the point, she is trusted. One senior source described her as "highly intelligent", and enjoying the full confidence of Mr Blair.

Her style is very different from Ms Short's. One MP says: "She's elegant, she looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, she's at one with the civil service and loves being in the Lords."

The real difficulty is in the politics. The root lies in the creation, after the general election, of the Department for International Development, whose development responsibilities had been part of the Foreign Office. Roles were never properly divided and the Foreign Office old guard resented the removal of an aid budget of pounds 2.2bn. The FCO is left with just pounds 50m discretionary spending money on areas such as conflict resolution.

Strains rapidly emerged over Montserrat, the volcano-struck island and dependent territory.Ms Short was in charge of the island's aid budget; Lady Symons had responsibility for dependent territories. Communication was tortuous because, as a Cabinet minister, Ms Short deals not with Lady Symons, but with her boss, Mr Cook. The only other forum in which they could meet - a Cabinet sub-committee set up to deal with Montserrat - has not met for months. One MP wondered whether the two ministers "have ever sat down together and talked".

Lady Symons made the first visit to Montserrat and was sympathetic towards demands for British investment. DFID, which would have to pay, was less happy and more sceptical about the prospect of the island sustaining its population in the long term.

But the biggest ruction was in August. As the crisis developed the island's leaders reacted angrily to government compensation plans for those who resettled. After reports that Ms Short had been "sidelined" she attacked "vile and dishonest" government spin doctors and accused part of the FCO of trying to "destroy" her department.

Until last week the bridge-building had gone well. But Mr Cook's mooting of a separate department for Britain's overseas territories re-awakened the Whitehall war. Ms Short holds several cards; she can block any new department, and if Lady Symons hopes to gain the title of Minister for the Overseas Territories, Ms Short is determined to keep control of the purse strings. "It is," said one MP, "weird that they ended up in a turf war over a volcano on an obscure island few people had heard of."