Many years ago now, I remember having lunch with R H S Crossman, just after the publication of the report by Sir Geoffrey Howe on various malpractices at the Ely Hospital, Cardiff. Crossman was justly proud of this inquiry: not only of its thoroughness, but of his success in having its conclusions published in largely unexpurgated form.
"Of course," he said, "only two sorts of people are prepared to work in places like that: sadists and queers."
I did not dissent from the minister's realistic assessment (for Crossman was then in charge of the DHSS).
"I suppose the trick is," I said - I distinctly remember using the word "trick" - "to weed out the sadists and give the jobs to the queers instead."
Crossman contemplated this thought intently, as if it had been of startling originality.
"No," he said, "you're quite wrong, I'm afraid. Sadists we can deal with. We're used to sadists because they're part of English life. It's the queers that give us all the trouble politically."
Nothing much has changed, except that we have acquired an obsession with child molestation which was not present in 1969, or to nothing like the same extent. And in the last few days a clear "line" has emerged about the tribulations of Ms Ruth Kelly at the hands of Fleet Street's Finest and her conquest of her tormentors or, at any rate, those of them who ply their trade outside the confines of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is a line which temporarily unites the Prig Press with the Government and its supporters in Parliament.
The Tories have not made much difference, partly, it may be, because Mr David Cameron feels that minister-hunting is no longer the voters' favourite recreation. In any case, his Education spokesman, Mr David Willetts, is in this respect a founder-member of the League Against Cruel Sports.
If you want ministers laid out on stretchers, you must have tougher people on your side than Mr Willetts: people like, say, Mr David Davis. As it was, the only Conservative to say anything damaging to Ms Kelly was the woman MP who said after her statement that she had given the House a masterclass in closing the stable door.
The Prig Press's line, which it shares with the Government and, naturally, with Ms Kelly herself, is exactly the same. Ms Kelly was, we are told, shockingly, scandalously, maliciously pursued by the most irresponsible forces in British journalism. Ms Kelly then proceeded to do that which those very same forces were calling upon her to do. Indeed, she went further than most of them. Not only were all convicted sex offenders to be banned from teaching. More: those in receipt of a police caution were to be treated identically.
There may have been something to be said in favour of the Education Department's previous policies, though there was clearly nothing to be said for the plethora of lists, or for the various criteria which someone was required to fulfil to put in an appearance on any one of them. There were also deep ambiguities, which needed to be resolved, about the circumstances in which an official could properly make a ministerial decision.
But for the department's basic policy - that we are all capable of redemption - there may have been something to be said. If there was, Ms Kelly (who, curiously, not only looks like a bloke, a particularly bright 14-year-old, but sounds like one as well) signally failed to say it. Instead, she followed the prescriptions offered by the popular press and added one or two of her own for good measure. Soon some unfortunate teacher will no doubt be banned for life for watching The Belles of St Trinian's over the Christmas holidays.
In short, Ms Kelly did all that the papers wanted and a bit more - and is simultaneously acclaimed for securing a famous victory over those same publications. It does not make sense.
Or, rather, it makes sense only within a special framework set up by this government and by certain papers, notably The Sun and the Daily Mail. Ms Kelly was not forced to resign: that is the only victory. It is worth noting, by the way, that the story about the erring gym teacher which set off the pack first appeared in The Observer, a perfectly respectable paper, or, at any rate, it used to be in the days when I worked for it. But there is something magnificent about the way in which cheaper publications will pursue ministers.
The theory of parliamentary democracy, or a part of it, is that ministers are held to account by Parliament. It is more usual for ministers to be taken under the protection of the umbrella of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. In that case, the umbrella usually turns into a big tent, when the backbenchers compete to demonstrate their loyalty to the authorities. If ministers are held to account at all, it is by the Daily Mail and The Sun, the true protectors of our liberties.
Sometimes the minister concerned is unpopular, as Mr Peter Mandelson was. Ms Kelly herself possesses certain Mandelsonian characteristics in that she is thought to be where she is because of the Prime Minister's favour and because she has contributed little to what used to be called This Great Movement of Ours. With unpopular ministers, there is a limit to the number of times the lever of loyalty can be pulled. Mr David Blunkett was not as well liked as some commentators thought he was. But he was better liked than Mr Mandelson was before him or, probably, than Ms Kelly is now.
What Ms Kelly did was fling to the papers the mangled corpses of a few poor teachers and to walk away uninjured herself. To accept the papers' advice and simultaneously to denounce them for offering it: what could be more convenient?
What had been built up beforehand as a great parliamentary occasion turned out to be another day in the Commons. It was ever thus: last Thursday it was even thusser. This time, however, there was a difference. The day was redeemed, excitement restored, by Lord Kinnock's declaration of war on the Government over city academies.
It is a truism of political comment that the government usually manages to get its way in the end. But it does not always happen. It did not happen in 1969, when Harold Wilson was defeated over trade union reform. It did not happen in 1993, when John Major was defeated over the Maastricht Treaty and had to restore his position with a vote of confidence. We are waiting to see whether it happens to Tony Blair in 2006 over education.Reuse content