Bad she may be, but good for Clare

The Short View
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The Independent Online

At the beginning of the week, most of my colleagues seemed to think that at last Mr Tony Blair was out of the tunnel. True, the weather on the other side was not very pleasant. There was snow in the air. But at least he was in open country, away from that awful gloom, with echoing voices asking precisely when he knew what about the invasion of Iraq. It was even familiar territory. The row about immigration from countries newly admitted to the European Union was proof of that.

Mr Michael Howard had first asked about it at Prime Minister's Questions three weeks before. Mr Blair responded with that lofty technique which had first been perfected by Jim Callaghan in his dealings across the dispatch box with Margaret Thatcher. Matters were well under control, he said, and the Leader of the Opposition did not know what she - or in this case he - was talking about.

But it seemed that Mr Howard did know something. So far from matters being under control, ministers did not know what to do next. Their answers varied according to whether they were trying to impress readers of The Guardian or of the Daily Mail. At the end it was decided, if that is not too strong a word, that the migrants would be admitted more or less freely, but that once they arrived here life would be made as difficult as possible for them.

As the Government or, at any rate, Mr Blair had started from what was roughly a Guardian position, this must be counted a victory for the Mail - and for The Sun as well. This should occasion no surprise at all. For it has long been evident that government policy is conducted largely for the benefit of these two papers.

There were other happy examples of what the Prime Minister fondly calls "eye-catching initiatives". It was quite like old times. There was the proposal on drugs-testing in schools. Mr Howard pointed out at PMQs that this was not new, having been announced some time previously. Mr Blair went into lofty mode once again. Was Mr Howard in favour of the scheme? Or was he not? Naturally he was in favour, as every interfering politician has to be.

In the struggle back to normality in which Mr Blair was engaged, there was another eye-catching initiative. This was the tax on obesity. If fat people were not going to be taxed (it was by no means clear whether they were or not), the commodities which made them fat were certainly going to be penalised fiscally. The columnists - I mean the sort who know very little about anything but are paid large sums to have strong opinions about everything - had a marvellous time.

They divided into two groups. There were those who believed that it was not the fault of fat people, because they were usually poor and were deprived of the opportunity to buy fresh fruit and vegetables by the forces of international capitalism. And there were those who believed that their condition was all their own fault, caused by a lack of discipline and will. One point of view went unrepresented. This was that if people chose to subsist largely on a diet of sweet tea, brown ale, lager, pot noodles, deep-fried Mars bars and chip sandwiches, that was entirely their own affair and had nothing whatever to do with the Government.

Nor did the great obesity scare conclude Mr Blair's eye-catching initiatives. There were also the extra 1,000 spies he was going to appoint - a suspiciously round number, accepted without question by a newly compliant BBC. It was like something out of an early Goon Show:

Seagoon: I have decided to appoint 1,000 extra spies.

The Major: But will that be enough to foil 10,000 dastardly fuzzy-wuzzies?

Seagoon: They're all I can fit into my secret gas-powered submarine, you fool.

Announcer: And now, a little light relief from the John Prescott Quartet.

It might have seemed risky for the young war criminal to boast about additional spies. It might have reminded people of Iraq. As things turned out, it worked a treat. The papers and the broadcasters lapped it up. It was left to Mr Jeremy Paxman to ask Mr David Blunkett why, if a terrorist attack was "inevitable", as Mr Blunkett assured us it was, a large number of extra spies would make any difference one way or another. And answer came there none.

But then the long march back to normality on which the Prime Minister had laid such store was rudely halted, by two women, one of them polite, the other undoubtedly rougher in her ways. The polite one, Ms Katharine Gun, caused embarrassment, but nothing that could not be overcome by the promise of a "review" of the Official Secrets Act. Indeed, the embarrassment at the collapse of - or, rather, the withdrawal from - her prosecution under the Act was nothing like as great as the Conservative distress brought about by the acquittal of Mr Clive Ponting.

It was precisely to avoid the repetition of such a débâcle that the prosecution of Ms Gun was dropped. Mr Blair could say that it was nothing to do with him, using a simplified version of the law- speak which Lord Goldsmith deployed in the Lords on the same day. He could then go on to his chosen subject, aid to Africa, though if he thinks that the affairs of the Dark Continent interest the voters as much as fat people, immigrants, drugs and spies, he is losing his grasp of public opinion. But he had to talk instead about the rougher lady, Ms Clare Short. I have not been among Ms Short's unqualified admirers, ever since her attack on Ms Liz Davies at a party conference some years ago. Nor did she cover herself with glory by staying in the Cabinet during the war and resigning later. But I am not disposed to be moralistic about her behaviour since, whether her fairly regular attacks on Mr Blair or her most recent and by far her most serious assault on him. She is a backbencher and is perfectly entitled to hold a low opinion of the Prime Minister. Others, after all, hold the same view.

Her revelations about Mr Kofi Annan's transcribed conversations have once again elicited the traditional English response on these occasions. The question is never: was what she said true? It is, rather: was she entitled to say it? This was the attitude of Mr Blair and of several commentators in Friday's papers. But they take security seriously; whereas I do not. This is because, long ago, I was in addition to my other duties security officer of an RAF fighter station. When I told Mr David Marquand of this, he said it had fortified his faith in British democracy.

So also with Ms Short. She has almost certainly infringed the Official Secrets Act and broken the privy councillors' pompous oath. But she has performed a public service all the same. She certainly spoilt Mr Blair's week for him. Good for Clare!

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