The Week In Westminster: Pinochet and policing prove tougher than yobs for Straw

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NEXT WEEK will be a difficult one for Jack Straw - much more difficult than the comparatively easy time he has had over his proposals to lock up people with severe personality disorders or encourage the public to have a go at yobs.

First there will be the publication of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report, followed by the law lords' verdict on the extradition of General Augusto Pinochet.

The Lawrence report, expected on Tuesday, will herald a shake-up of the police in tackling racism. If the report finds that there have been serious cases of police misconduct, Mr Straw will face calls for the resignation of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon.

At the same time Mr Straw will be praying that the Pinochet saga will finally come to an end, with the lords ruling that the former dictator is sent back to Chile.

The Home Secretary is fed up with the issue dominating his in-tray and, having already proved his credentials with Labour left-wingers by supporting the earlier ruling, is now anxious for their lordships to give him a break.

Apart from the issue itself, Mr Straw would also like to end the constant harassment by Lord Lamont of Lerwick, who yesterday elicited information that even the Pope has been lobbying the Foreign Office on behalf of the general.

Lord Lamont has been tabling irritating questions, including one about a visit made to Chile 33 years ago by Mr Straw, asking whether he engaged in any political activity while he was there. Lord Williams, the Home Office minister, replied that Mr Straw "at this distance cannot recall anything which could be defined as political activity".

But Lord Lamont is persistent, and ascertained that Mr Straw published an article, in October 1966, in Tribune on the prospects of reform under the then Chilean government.

THE POLITICAL fall-out on the genetically modified food panic fell equally on both main parties. William Hague, who started the scare a fortnight ago during Prime Minister's Questions, inspired John Redwood to score easy runs, initially, against the Department of Trade and Industry minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville. Mr Redwood worked relentlessly to bring into the public domain a possible conflict of interest where Lord Sainsbury was concerned.

With Mr Redwood on the case there was a good chance the Tories might have drawn blood - and even another DTI minister's resignation. But, concerned that Mr Redwood would get the limelight, the Tories foolishly went off on another tack by switching to the issue of food safety, setting up an unevenly matched parliamentary battle between their agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo, and the wily Brummie food minister, Geoff Rooker, who knocked Mr Yeo for six by exposing theTories' complicity in GM food development when they were in office.

Tony Blair badly misread public opinion and, echoing John Gummer, who tried to reassure public opinion by stuffing beefburgers down his six- year-old daughter, tried to claim that because he ate it, the funny food must be safe.

Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, craftily uttered not a word, neither in Parliament nor to the media, preferring to attend to his ministerial duties in Europe while letting Jack Cunningham take the strain on the airwaves.

But the pressure on the Government to slow down the pace of GM food will build as Labour MPs are beginning to be overwhelmed by their postbags.

The regular MP-baiters who write at the drop of a hat are gearing themselves up to gum up the works of members' correspondence - the most effective way of getting backbenchers to run panicking to ministers.

Mr Hague has proved how easy it is to start a food scare, but the real achievement is stopping one. That is the test now for Mr Blair and his ministers.

CONSERVATIVE WAY Forward and Aims of Industry are hosting a grand "International Free Enterprise Dinner" on 20 April to mark the 20th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher being elected as prime minister (tickets: pounds 125).

Baroness Thatcher is said to be delighted that Sir Edward Heath has accepted an invitation, and to confirm that media stories of constant war between the two former prime ministers are invariably wide of the mark.

The two circled each other before exchanging pleasantries at last year's Tory party conference. Both agreed on the discomfort of being wedged into the infamous Ikea chairs, where they looked similarly fed up at the chaotic proceedings.

In fact there is more than grudging respect between the two old war-horses for each other's longevity. It is often forgotten that they both began their political careers together in Kent fighting nearby seats in the 1950 general election, when they spoke on behalf of each other in their respective constituencies.

The Baroness attended Sir Edward's party to mark his 40 years as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup when she was prime minister. Sir Edward's recently published autobiography records a photograph of a dinner that Lady Thatcher held at Downing Street for the Queen in 1985. It was attended by the then five surviving prime ministers, including Sir Edward.

NO FORMER Conservative MP has made it to the last seven in the race to be the Tory candidate for the super-safe seat of Leominster, where local Tories are looking for a replacement for Peter Temple-Morris, who defected to Labour last year.

Heading the pack is William Hague's back-room office boy, 27-year-old George Osborne. The others are Richard Bacon, who fought Vauxhall last time; Richard Ashworth, who fought Devon North; Bill Wiggin (son of former MP Sir Gerry Wiggin), who fought Burnley; Hugo Swire, who fought Greenock and Inverclyde (nephew of the former minister, Sir John Nott), and Colonel Patrick Mercer, seen as the local man.

The smart money is on a fight to the finish between Mr Osborne and Colonel Mercer. The local party executive will whittle the names down to three next week, with a full ballot of party members on Friday 5 March.