Whitehall out to destroy me, says Clare Short

Fresh row rocks Government as minister attacks 'vile and dishonest' spin doctors
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The Independent Online
The Government was plunged back into a bitter internal row last night as Clare Short attacked "vile and dishonest" government spin doctors, and accused part of the Foreign Office of trying to "destroy" her Whitehall department.

The Secretary of State for International Development reopened Labour's row over news management with a devastating attack on spin doctoring which, she said, was "out of control".

Ms Short, a veteran of clashes with Labour spin doctors, said: "I've been here a few times and this is the pattern. It is not to do with the truth. It's to do with finding a scapegoat, but I'm shocked that complete misinformation can go so far."

The minister hinted that she might be forced out of office by the activities of the spin doctors. She said: "There comes a time in politics when you think, 'Gosh, if I have to live with this much bile and dishonesty, there's a limit to my capacity to take it.'"

Her intervention came in response to reports that she had been "sidelined" over her comments that the leadership of volcano-hit Montserrat would want "golden elephants" next.

Ms Short said those words were never intended for repetition, and acknowledged that they were "offensive" when they appeared publicly.

But, in comments of unprecedented frankness from a serving Cabinet minister, Ms Short attacked the staff of the Foreign Office - which has overall responsibility for Montserrat - for their reaction.

There had, she said, been "briefing out of the reactionary end of the Foreign Office and they clearly don't know anything about me".

Ms Short said she was the "whipping girl for people who cannot bear the idea of an independent department with an aid budget which is committed to development and not to Britain's short-term interest. They are out to destroy the department."

There were, she added, "voices that look backward at Britain's role in the world and rather yearn for empire. They want the aid budget to be spent on short-term political and financial relationships."

Ms Short's anger stems from briefings to newspapers last week, believed to have come from the Foreign Office press department, and repeated by the duty press officer at Downing Street. Senior sources insisted yesterday the briefings were intended to answer criticism that there was no co- ordination of the Government's effort in Montserrat, not to undermine Ms Short.

But Ms Short said: "Heavy briefing suggested that the Foreign Office was taking on a new duty to co-ordinate. That was simply untrue. They are responsible for the dependent territories, they have been co-ordinating the Montserrat policy from the very beginning. That's the job of the Foreign Office. Then this 'snub to me' briefing which must have been spin- doctored because it was in every single [news] outlet. Lots of [it] fairly vitriolic stuff."

Asked where this came from, the minister replied: "It waseither or both No 10 and the Foreign Office press departments." But Ms Short accepted assurances from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, that he was not responsible. She also said her Cabinet colleague Robin Cook had been helpful.

Ms Short's intervention came less than a week after Mr Blair's return from holiday, just as he hoped to draw a line under the summer's rows.

It also comes as George Foulkes, junior minister for international development, leaves for Montserrat. Mr Foulkes acknowledged his trip to the Caribbean was likely to be difficult. He said: "I have been warned it's not going to be an easy job and I accept that ... I see it as a challenge."