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Inside File: When Hurd filled the coal scuttle

OPPOSITION politicians, journalists and voters may be allowed to ask surprise questions of foreign secretaries. But when Douglas Hurd addresses a union meeting of his own staff, as he did for the first time on Monday, questions must be submitted in writing in advance and vetted by the personnel department. No supplementaries are allowed.

In Durbar Court, the vast marble interior courtyard of the Foreign Office, some 750 staff stood for an hour to hear reassurances from their leader (there was no room for chairs). The meeting had been organised by the Diplomatic Service trade union representatives. One questioner raised the matter of salaries, which according to the union have risen by only 2 per cent in a decade; Mr Hurd countered that, according to Foreign Office estimates, they had in fact risen by at least 18 per cent. Because follow-up questions were not allowed, staff were not able to question him further.

On questions of shortage of staff, Mr Hurd countered that while the pressures may be greater today, conditions when he entered the Foreign Service as a junior diplomat in 1952 were harsher. He recalled how his first job had involved working from a side room of the Locarno Suite in the Foreign Office surrounded by communications huts, with one of his main duties to ensure that the coal fires in various rooms were fed.

Reactions to the performance ranged from enthusiasm to the view that it was 'like talking to a blancmange'. Some felt that as they worked hard to prepare Mr Hurd for surprise questions from MPs and journalists, it was odd they were the only people not allowed to pose them.

When the head of the union invited Mr Hurd to come back next year, he accepted with alacrity. Some staff took this to mean he would be staying on in the job - contrary to speculation that he intends to resign this year. But, like all politicians, he would have to say that, wouldn't he.

Mr Hurd is a member of the most unpopular government in modern history. But somehow the dirt, the allegations of incompetence and hypocrisy which are thrown at his colleagues are never thrown at him.

Mr Hurd came in at a time when the post-Cold War bonfire of the certainties was about to start raging. He has fought a competent rearguard action but, as one analyst said, he 'has been broken on the wheel of Bosnia'. One colleague said that crisis would 'be inscribed on his tombstone'.

He is known in Whitehall as 'a Rolls-Royce among politicians'. Conversely, he is also described by some colleagues as 'more of a civil servant than a politician, led by his sense of duty rather than ideas'.

The following may be a coincidence, but it may also illustrate that point. On a trip to the Middle East earlier this month, Mr Hurd was taking such a low-key approach that journalists travelling with him on the VC-10 told his aides that if they expected any coverage at all, he would have to move up a gear. The next day, on a visit to Gaza, Mr Hurd did just that. He said the Israeli occupation of the territories was 'no way to run a community of that number of people' and that the 'military occupation is a denial of human rights'. Within hours, the Foreign Office news department was on the telephone to newspapers in London, drawing attention to what they called the Foreign Secretary's 'remarkably forceful comments'.

SPEAKING of press secretaries, the new one at Number Ten, Christopher Meyer, took over yesterday. When Gus O'Donnell announced his intention to go back to the Treasury last year many speculated he was being removed in favour of the exceptionally fluent Mr Meyer, who has had a meteoric career as a diplomat.

But it was in fact Mr O'Donnell himself who recruited Mr Meyer. Homesick for his old job among charts and figures, Mr O'Donnell started casting around after the last general election for the best man to replace him. He concluded that Mr Meyer had done an admirable job as press secretary to Geoffrey Howe in the 1980s, when he used to organise breakfasts for journalists with the then Foreign Secretary. When Mr O'Donnell visited Washington with the PM last year, he told Mr Meyer: 'You should be doing my job next.'