Alan Watkins: An influx of one-legged Romanian roofers and plumbers? Someone had to pay

Jenkins secured a debating triumph in the case of the escaped spy
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The Independent Online

Looking at the Government front bench last week, with the Home Secretary's Junior Ministers, or one of them, beside him, I was struck by the way in which she had diminished in the last few months. All the burdens of the present administration seemed to rest on her frail shoulders. As the late Frankie Howerd used to say: poor soul!

I do not claim that my heart went out to her exactly, for that, to use the commentators' favourite word of the week, would be hypocritical. After all, no-one has to take a job in this or any other Government. You do not accept a post unless you are asked to do it in the first place. Still, I retained some sympathy, even if that quality was not limitless.

After some minutes, I'd realised I had made a mistake. I had got the wrong Minister. I had been contemplating a crushed Ms Beverley Hughes. Instead I had been looking at Ms Joan Ryan. I knew perfectly well who Ms Hughes was. She was - or, at any rate, had been - one of Mr David Blunkett's young ladies. He had devoted a whole afternoon to defending her in the House of Commons, alas, to no avail.

It had been something to do with an unaccounted for influx of one-legged Romanian roofers, or it may have been plumbers; possibly both. Unhappily, she had paid the price. I had, however, assumed that, such are the ways of this government, she had been returned to office - ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - and now sat at Dr John Reid's hand rather than beside Mr Blunkett. Instead she is in another, new, job. I can only offer my apologies to both ladies.

Dr Reid's other Ministerial sidekick is Mr Tony McNulty. By trade, he is a polytechnic lecturer. Ms Ryan follows much the same business, with an emphasis on religious affairs and sociology. But whereas she is a shrinking, wary, curled-up-in-a-ball sort of politician, Mr McNulty is more the type to turn on the most objectionable (or perhaps on the most vulnerable) member of the company as the evening grinds on.

Mr McNulty does not - how can one put this? - create any great impression of refinement, certainly not when he appears on television. One can imagine Dr Reid saying:

Speaking for myself, I abhor violence in all its forms. Unfortunately, my associate, Mr McNulty, is less fastidious in his methods. He suffers from the additional disadvantage that he is extraordinarily clumsy in his movements. I see he has already inadvertently smashed a valuable coffee pot.

There are, as far as one can see, two Home Office scandals rather than one. This is the most recent, weekly count. The total is longer and goes further back in time. One of these scandals is about the failure to transfer information on foreign crimes or criminals on to computers; the other is about the practice of walking out of jail, a more traditional form of scandal at the Home Office.

On the newer form, last week Newsnight drew a perfect and absolute Ministerial blank. Instead the programme interviewed one of its staff members, Mr Michael Crick. If he is not technically a member of its staff - and people rightly make all kinds of arrangements of their own - he is certainly a regular and frequent broadcaster. He is at the head of his profession, as much as a reporter as a biographer of figures from the cotemporary scene.

And yet, I could not feel but a little dissatisfied, not so much with anything that Mr Crick produced, as with the absence of any representatives of the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps they were asked, but they too said no. Somehow, I do not think this is quite what happened.

Mr David Davis or his deputy would, I am sure, have been delighted to appear, with or without the presence of Dr Reid, Mr McNulty or Ms Ryan. The Liberal Democrat representative, I am sure, would have been just as pleased to trot along to the studio, irrespective of the presence of Ministers or of Conservatives.

My impression had been for the BBC to be more defiant in accepting the power of veto by the government to forestall any further discussion of the matter in question. The official opposition used to have similar though more circumscribed powers. It may be that post-Hutton pusillanimity may have indicated a reversion to older ways.

It may be, equally, that the rules say that, on a matter of government policy - such as the appearance or non-appearance of information on a police computer - the government should be empowered to withdraw the names not only of Minister s on the programme but of representatives of the other political parties as well. If this is what the internal rules do say, they need looking at; as a first step, they ought to be published.

There is a quite different difficulty that has arisen in the course of the week's stirring events. That is the nature of Ministerial responsibility. Ms Hughes, to whom I referred earlier, took - or was compelled to take - this responsibility. A popular figure, she had to go even after she had been cheered by her backbenchers and defended by her chief Minister.

Constitutional theory is now in thrall to the brute power of the Daily Mail and The Sun, as (with appropriate modifications) it always has been. At a critical point, No.10's nerve begins to go. Dr Reid still enjoys protected status in what used to be called Fleet Street, though for how much longer his two auxiliaries retain their immunity is a matter of speculation.

But all three of them have taken to blaming their civil servants. This technique was pioneered by Dr Reid. Or, if he was not the innovator - and who can say for certain who it was? - he certainly carried his methods to hitherto unknown of Ministerial selfishness, aggression and conceit.

In 1966, the spy George Blake escaped from a monstrous 42-year sentence. The then-Home Secretary was Roy Jenkins. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, said, as RHS Crossman recorded in his diary:

"That will do our Home Secretary a great deal of good. He was getting too complacent and he needs taking down a peg."

As things turned out, Jenkins secured a debating triumph in the Blake case in the Commons and he went on to become an admired Chancellor of the Exchequer. Somehow I do not think we shall be seeing Dr Reid as Mr Gordon Brown's Chancellor. We have not heard nearly as much as we should have done about the precise composition of Mr Brown's Cabinet, but I suspect it will be Mr Jack Straw as Chancellor.

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