The super sticking power of green Gum Gum: Stephen Castle explains the renaissance of John Gummer, the DoE's 'cheeky chappie'

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The Independent Online
A FRIDAY morning in the shadow of Felixstowe docks and John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, is talking serious rubbish. More precisely he is talking recycling, launching a scheme in his Suffolk constituency which will miraculously transform BT's old telephone directories into egg boxes. Mr Gummer, a slight figure in a brown check suit, is smiling impishly as he casts phone books over his shoulder into a big yellow skip.

He has reason to be happy; last week was a good one for the minister known as Gum Gum. On Tuesday his department overcame Downing Street's reservations to issue planning guidance redefining the role of the car in Conservative thinking, winning many media plaudits. Soon the 54-year-old minister will be able to claim credit for cuts in the road programme drawn up jointly by his department and Transport.

And, far away from an unnaturally tidy and daffodil-lined rubbish dump in Felixstowe, there are strange stirrings in the Westminster jungle. One of Mr Gummer's Labour opponents privately admits that his tenure at Environment has not been the predicted disaster, while another grudgingly concedes that he is 'hardly the worst in the Cabinet'. Have we all rather misjudged the minister best known for his opposition to women priests and his conversion to Catholicism?

John Major, after all, is reputed to have said that Gum Gum would be considered one of the best politicians of his generation, if only he were one stone heavier, one foot taller and his voice one octave lower.

Mr Gummer has been around for a long time. Indeed, he was a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party 22 years ago, although he was out of Parliament for five years after losing his seat in 1974. But for much of his career he has attracted rather quirky publicity, over religious issues, who paid for his garden pond, or feeding his daughter a hamburger.

This was partly because of the long wilderness years at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Whitehall's equivalent of the Siberian power-station posting. It was also because of his willingness to speak out about religion, which earned him the reputation of preacher rather than politician.

Now, however, the minister is getting a better press, having embarked on a significant shift in Tory rhetoric. In January he tore up his prepared text in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts and made a heartfelt plea for sustainable development, arguing that this meant everyone would 'have to look at the way we live in a very much more fundamental way than we have for a very long time'.

If implemented by local authorities, last week's planning guidance - carefully negotiated with his colleagues at Transport - will spell the end for applications for environmentally unfriendly out-of-town shopping centres, to which shoppers are obliged to drive.

After performing his photocall, the Secretary of State returned by coach to a cavernous conference room at BT's local headquarters and dispatched a few shibboleths of the Thatcher era, talking fast and combatively while munching through the buffet lunch.

Politicians, he argued, have 'got to avoid being puritanical' about motor-cars, which are 'one of the great givers of freedom'. But, he added: 'What you cannot go on doing is seeing motor-car numbers rise so that life is dominated by them. The car must become our servant rather than our master.'

There has long been enthusiasm in the Tory party for roadbuilding, seen by economic liberals as a generator of wealth and a liberator of the individual. Mr Gummer, always on the wet side of the party, does not agree. He believes the Conservatives should guard against creating a society 'which restricts freedom by not allowing people to choose a lifestyle that does not involve having a car'.

The shift is an important one, although the minister is careful not to commit his party to spending more cash on public transport. There is, he argued, a degree of in-built hypocrisy in people's thinking which makes the promotion of public transport complex. Surveys suggest that a 'very high proportion of the public want better public-transport systems for other people to use, so that they can drive their car more comfortably. Therefore the difficulty is, if you put on more buses, will people use them? You need to provide the circumstances in which public transport is manifestly a better alternative, which is more complicated than sloganising'.

The Gummer answer is planning, to create an environment where people are not reliant on cars. 'You can't expect people to use public transport if you insist on people living in one place and working in another place, and then doing their leisure somewhere else and shopping somewhere else.'

Instead, the Government should be making it possible to say 'this journey is so convenient by public transport that I don't need to have a second car in my household'. Even this is hardly uncontentious in a party that believes in free enterprise: indeed, one ministerial colleague last week said the Secretary of State had 'gone mad' about out-of-town shopping centres. For the diehards, worse is to come: Mr Gummer backs road pricing, particularly motorway charging.

Politically, Mr Gummer's greenery is living up to his reputation as one endowed with political cunning and tactical awareness. He has harnessed powerful forces within the Treasury, anxious to see VAT imposed on domestic fuel, motorway and congestion charging, and a cutback in roadbuilding: greenery is potentially lucrative for the Government.

On roads the tactician comes into play. Mr Gummer and the Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor, have conducted the roads review between them, effectively excluding the Treasury's Chief Secretary, Michael Portillo.

Is Mr Gummer's career on the threshold of a renaissance? His interest in religion is, he knows, a constraint on his political progress. The British, he concedes, do not like discussing their religion, regarding it as rather like 'talking in a railway carriage'. He takes his beliefs seriously and objected to some opposition ribbing about the ecumenical nature of afternoon prayers which take place each day before the Commons begins business.

Close colleagues believe a bigger brake on his potential is his reliance on native wit rather than hard work. The Gummer style is reflected in the furnishing of his office: out have gone the hard chairs and conference table of his predecessor, Michael Howard; in have come the armchairs. A story, probably apocryphal, doing the rounds is that Mr Gummer sent a memo to his civil servants asking for some new ideas. One idea, came the response, would be for you to finish your ministerial boxes.

A lack of attention to detail weakens Mr Gummer's punch in crucial Cabinet committees. He tried and failed to have the local government review stopped and the building of additional lanes on a section of the M25 abandoned. He suffered a poor public-spending settlement last year. His ministerial colleagues also complain of an inability to delegate.

But, perhaps most of all, he does not look the part of the Cabinet big beast. Physically he is too small to be dubbed, like one of his predecessors, Chris Patten, the Cabinet's 'Jolly Green Giant'. Somehow, says a friend, he has never managed to convey political weight or authority, looking, instead, like the 'cheeky chappie at the front of the class with the right answer'. But, rather rarely in this Cabinet, his mid-term report should be respectable.

(Photograph omitted)