Alan Watkins: Turn Hazel Blears into a pillar of salt (but give three cheers for Cherie)

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The Independent Online

I refused to join the consensus. So did Mr George Galloway. He was denounced by the Daily Mail for his "twisted logic", though, to its credit, this did not prevent the paper from carrying an article by Sir Max Hastings - now an even more scatterfiring journalist than Roy Hattersley - in which he came down on the same side as Mr Galloway, myself and a few others, even if in a somewhat more emollient fashion.

Then, slowly, things began to change. It was like one of those occasional programmes on television about glaciers melting on account of global warming, in one of the rare slots when the service is not showing people doing up houses or moving to foreign parts. Conventionally, such nature programmes end with an almighty crash and icebergs floating all over the place. We have not reached that stage yet in politics. But a change there has certainly been.

It began with Mr Charles Kennedy suggesting at Prime Minister's Questions that Iraq might just conceivably have had something to do with the bombs. If there were a parliamentary prize for being tentative, Mr Kennedy would walk off with it tomorrow. Though I like him personally and admire him, up to a point, politically, it is extraordinary that he has now been a member for 22 years. He still behaves as if he is looking for where precisely the lavatories - or, if you prefer, the bars - are to be found.

In all this we should of course remember that one of Mr Kennedy's objects is to avoid the unpatriotic paint with which the Conservatives and, even more enthusiastically, Labour are now keen to spatter him. At the same time he does not want to lose the attractions involved in being radical, which paid dividends at the election, though they were not quite so handsome as might have been expected. Accordingly Mr Kennedy has a certain balance to maintain.

Then there was the Royal Institute of International Affairs, otherwise known as Chatham House, a very different organisation from the Liberal Democrats. It was often looked upon, not least by itself, as a branch of the Foreign Office. If it is no longer regarded in quite this way, it is because the old order has changed. There are certainly more think-tanks of one kind and another about the place, specialising both in subjects and in factions with which they identify and to which they owe their existence. Even so, Mr Jack Straw had to deal with this longer established institute's conclusion that Iraq had undoubtedly been a contributory cause of the London bombings. He did this by employing one of his favourite devices, the flat denial.

Mr Tony Blair made regular use of the same brutish instrument. But last week there was a slight change. Having seen nine Prime Ministers in action, I now regard myself as a connoisseur of those little shifts of emphasis which, after a few months, can result in an entirely different policy, brought about while nobody has noticed what is happening. The greatest exponent was Harold Wilson, but he is closely followed by the present incumbent.

"I read occasionally," Mr Blair declared at his press conference, "I am supposed to have said it's nothing to do with Iraq. I haven't said that." Well, he could have fooled me. He went on: "What I do say is this: of course people are going to use Iraq and Afghanistan to try and recruit people. I think most people understand that the roots of this go far deeper."

There is a faint glimmer here, no more, that Mr Blair may not yet be prepared to jettison his policy in the Middle East but, rather, his rhetorical confusion between justification and explanation. To explain, he has consistently implied, is the same as to justify; and nothing can justify the blowing up of innocent people in Underground trains and elsewhere.

This was never the attitude to the IRA under successive Prime Ministers. A united Ireland and the withdrawal of British troops from Ulster were acceptable subjects for discussion among civilised and rational folk. Mr Blair has gone out of his way endlessly to flatter and indulge Sinn Fein and its representatives, with apparent success; though we shall have to wait and see about that, for I have already seen as many ceasefires come and go as Mr Blair has.

But though the Prime Minister seems half-ready to acknowledge the distinction between explaining and justifying, he is still adamant that the new sort of terror is different from anything we have experienced in the past 35 years. And perhaps it is. That does not justify him in trying to blackguard judges into returning verdicts favourable to the Government. There has been nothing like it since the 17th century.

Admittedly Mr David Blunkett made similar efforts, but he was only a rather oafish Home Secretary. His successor, Mr Charles Clarke, seems more aware of the constitutional proprieties, though one can never be entirely sure about these things. Certainly one of Mr Blunkett's tricoteuses, Ms Hazel Blears, is still at large in the Home Office. For myself, my faith would be fortified if the Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, chose to turn Ms Blears into a pillar of salt. I should then like to see the ensuing product dissolved in a bath of lukewarm water, for I would not wish to cause unnecessary suffering even to a pillar of salt. But that would be the end of Hazel Blears.

Does she, I wonder, get on with Cherie Booth QC, or Mrs Blair? Last week, in a lecture in Kuala Lumpur, Mrs Blair, in Ms Booth's wig, praised the Law Lords who had ruled on the illegality of the imprisonment of assorted characters in Belmarsh prison and so brought about the modifications to the legislation on terrorism, shortly to be modified yet again. She supported the Human Rights Act and exalted an independent judiciary as the simple citizen's bulwark against oppression. Simultaneously, in London, her husband was saying something not merely different but directly opposite, even hostile. And Ms Booth was not appearing in court, where she would have had professional obligations to her client, but in a lecture theatre, where she was representing only herself.

Does Ms Booth now get on with Mr Blair? I do not not see why not, for he is a populist politician by trade, something of an actor-manager as well, while she is a human-rights lawyer. By day they do different jobs. And at night, as Mrs Blair has enthusiastically informed us, love - or sex - conquers all. Three cheers for Cherie: that is the column's message for the week.

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