Who dumped on Clare and why?

Once again Ms Short spoke out of turn. There is a battle going on, and truth is an early casualty, she says
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Clare Short, who is no stranger to controversy, has adopted two tactics to deal with the volcanic explosion of criticism following her imprudent suggestion that Montserrat's politicians are so irresponsible that they would soon be asking for "golden elephants".

The first is to stop reading newspapers. Like Margaret Thatcher, the Secretary of State for International Development has read only heavily edited cuttings. Her staff weed out the worst of the vitriol.

Her second tactic is to escape by taking exercise. She swims. Each morning for seven days now she has swum the best part of half a mile.

Ms Short freely acknowledges that her reference to "golden elephants" was unfortunate and offensive. She claims that the phrase was never intended for repetition in public. But last week it was her turn to cry foul, and she was fuming at briefings for journalists by other government departments, at the nefarious activities of spindoctors, and at the forces within the Foreign Office which, she says, want to destroy her department.

This is not a baptism of fire, she says: "It is a further immersion in the black art of spindoctoring. I've seen it before, but never quite as vile and dishonest as this." She feels she has been dumped on, and wonders whether it is worth it. "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'," she says.

Her spacious, modern office has a view of Westminster Cathedral through a window that runs the length of the room, and sitting in a comfortable chair Ms Short recalls some history. When Lady Symons, the Foreign office minister, visited Montserrat shortly after the election, she thought the local politicians were probably right when they emphasised the needs for British money to redevelop the north of the island away from the volcano rather than pay for resettlement elsewhere. When Montserrat's leaders came to London in August they argued that their people should be told to stay put, and asked for money to pay for this. "The shopping list was fantastically expensive," she says.

Ms Short says that she always wanted the islanders to have a choice: to stay, to move to the neighbouring island of Antigua or to come to Britain. "Monumental things have happened to their island, and what's irritating is that the people of Montserrat don't know what their real choices are. They are entitled to know, and they are entitled to exercise them."

Since George Foulkes, her junior minister, is due to arrive in Montserrat today, she is careful not to re-ignite the row with the island's politicians. The fault, she says, lies with the media. "The press people and the BBC are pumping out completely false accounts. And then suggestions from the new chief minister that it was British policy to evacuate the island. Whether he was misled because of the poor communications, I don't know, but that never was policy. It gets very irritating."

Next came the "grave and grievous" error - her well-publicised attack on the "sheer irresponsibility" of island leaders, and the claim that "they will be wanting golden elephants next". The phrase first appeared in the Observer after a conversation last Saturday that Ms Short thought was "off the record" - in other words not for quotation. "I was talking shorthand, in an informal way, but of course that language is completely offensive on the record." One theory is that neither party checked the status of the remarks. She says she is "staggered" by what happened: "I still can't believe it."

It was a curious episode. The language she used had almost colonial overtones not usually associated with Ms Short. Moreover her difficulties with colleagues normally happen because of what she has said on the record, not off it. "If you mean it, say it," she says. "What I've said about Montserrat - that it's a tragedy, that we're committed to the continuing community in the north, and that people ought to have choices - I say informally, I say it to my friends. There is no doubt about my policy so I tend not to go 'off the record'. But we all use slightly different language when we talk very informally and quickly to summarise some months of history."

But why "golden elephants"?

"If you know me well," she says brightly, "I use quite graphic language normally. I hone little phrases. I love language, I do it all the time - expressive and slightly complex allusions. It's just part of the way my mind works. But obviously I would never ever have used that language on the record to hurt and insult people."

The fallout was spectacular. Monday's papers reported that Ms Short had been sidelined and that the Foreign Office was to set up a committee to co-ordinate activities. Ms Short's response is uncompromising. The story, based on a lie, is the result of spindoctoring. The design was to undermine her and crush her new department.

She argues: "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 spindoctored because it was in every single [news] outlet. Lots of [it was] fairly vitriolic stuff."

She is into her stride now: "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 am shocked that complete misinformation can go so far. We have a rather innocent and straightforward press department here, but you only have to see the identical language in every single outlet. It's an absolutely clear example of spindoctoring."

But where does it come from?

"It was from either/or both No 10 and the Foreign Office press departments, and it unleashed this vitriol." (Later she specifically accepts Alastair Campbell's assurance that he was not the guilty party.)

Actually, Ms Short does not deny that a new official has been put in charge of the co-ordinating committee. "A committee of all the departments affected has met since the beginning of the crisis. I believe the Foreign Office has made the civil servant who chairs it more senior than he used to be, but that was spun as a change of responsibility, that the Foreign Office was taking over from this department, and that the committee was brand new.

"This is shocking only if you think the truth's important. If we have a system where spindoctors say what is convenient for the moment and the British media print it without checking, then this is the world we live in.

"The whole art of spindoctoring is out of control, and I think political journalists now take the spin without checking the facts. Montserrat was seen to be an embarrassment. They needed to dump on someone, so why not dump on Clare?"

But why dump on Clare?

"Because of the person I am. Because I'm not an in-grouper, I'm not a cynic. A lot of political journalists think you can't really be in politics if you think you can tell the truth. It's time I learned the lesson that you can't be in politics and be genuine and not be a cynical fixer. I irritate a lot of them because I think you can."

But she also detects a political agenda in Whitehall that is set by the creation of her International Development Department. Overall responsibility for that area had belonged to the Foreign Office, with the Overseas Development Administration playing a subservient role. So far, Ms Short remains a little circumspect about her enemies in Whitehall. She says: "Behind the scenes this is being fed by people who don't want my department to succeed. It's not just me, but I'm 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."

She does not blame her cabinet colleagues. Her two recent phone conversations with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, have been positive. She says he has told her: "This is not my doing. I don't want it, and I will make that clear to my department."

But this does not make her feel secure: "There are voices out there, absolutely false stories appearing, consistent briefing going on, and the precious thing that's endangered is the possibility of a department that can help to mobilise the effort for Britain to be a leading force in the world in achieving our great objective of tackling global poverty and environmental degradation.

"There are some 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. That's the real politics underpinning this row. Poor old Montserrat got caught in the middle."

It is a fierce fight. Unnamed sources argue, for instance, that Ms Short is unfit for her post because she has a fear of flying.

"There's been briefing out of the reactionary end of the Foreign Office, and they clearly don't know anything about me, or about the number of places I have been in my life," she says in response. To prove the point she lists her forthcoming visits to Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Japan, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.

For Ms Short the current row is different to her previous indiscretions, over tax, reviewing the law on drugs or spindoctors, all of which won her secret plaudits from many of the party faithful. So how does she rate the long-term damage? "Who knows?" she says, but she does admit that last week she did wonder whether there is a limit to her capacity to take this much "bile and dishonesty".

"I'm not saying that limit is imminently reached, but there is [a limit]. Maybe some of the bile is designed to say that, in politics, only cynics need apply. Otherwise we will make it unbearable for you."