Like an apology for failing to pass the salt

It has been quite like old times. I refer to that darkest of dark ages, the day before yesterday, when Mr John Major had to deal with the consequences of a speech he made on the theme Back to Basics. I heard it at the time and read it afterwards, at least twice. It was all about reading, writing and arithmetic, and their loss of pre-eminence, which the then Prime Minister promised to restore. Very dull stuff it was too.

However, a bright spark from Central Office assured the assembled journalists on the day - presumably in an attempt to liven things up - that it was really about sex, and the need to enforce the highest standards of personal morality among ministers of the Crown. Naturally, this made matters much more interesting to our great newspapers. It was not long before what seemed to be a whole string of ministers were getting themselves into scrapes of one sort or another, chiefly another.

What happened afterwards had the inevitability of the traditional England batting collapse. Mr Major would announce that he reposed the utmost confidence in the erring minister and that what he got up to in his spare time had nothing to do with government business. The papers, conscious of where their duty or, at any rate, their interest lay, would demand that this monster should be kept away from our kiddies. It would go on for weeks.

The 1922 Committee would then take a hand, saying that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter - on which they naturally took no side - what was unquestionable was that the interests of the party were being damaged. The minister would unfortunately have to go.

But all was not necessarily lost. Having paid his debt to society or, at least, to the Conservative Party, Mr Tim Yeo was restored to the body of the kirk and was, indeed, written about respectfully as a possible successor to Mr Iain Duncan Smith until the putsch establishing Mr Michael Howard came about. Likewise, Mr David Willetts, who had to resign because of some skulduggery in the Whips Office rather than anything of a more interesting nature, is now back in favour, even if it is only in opposition.

In government, it is the same story. Ms Estelle Morris left the schools to find solace in the arts instead. Ms Harriet Harman did not resign but was, perhaps unjustly, sacked from her original job at Social Security but has now returned, fit as a flea, as the first Solicitor General in history to be either a solicitor or a woman, and she is both. Mr Peter Mandelson resigned, or was sacked, from the Cabinet in 1998, came back - ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - in 1999 and was sacked, or resigned, in 2001.

In modern government it is becoming increasingly difficult to say whether someone has resigned or been sacked. In olden times the distinction was fairly easy to make. A minister who had resigned was allowed to make a resignation speech, as, say, Aneurin Bevan did. In fact he made several speeches, the reasons for his departure varying from one oration to the next. However, a minister who had been sacked, such as Selwyn Lloyd, did not try to make such a speech, even though he had done the state some service in his time. Today everyone who leaves the government, for whatever reason, is laxly allowed by Mr Speaker to make a resignation speech, which is heard without interruption, however ignominious the circumstances of the departure may have been.

With Ms Beverley Hughes, the Speaker was probably right to show her some indulgence. Listening to Prime Minister's Questions, I noticed that Mr Tony Blair did not mention her once; whereas earlier in the week Mr David Blunkett had chosen to depict her as a combination of Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale and Grace Darling. Clearly, something was up. I thought that Mr Blair had decided to brazen it out, taking Ms Hughes under the umbrella of collective responsibility, while confining his tributes to her to a minimum. In fact she did not receive anything at all from our beloved leader, not even a voucher exchangeable at Boots.

Had she said to him earlier: "Tony [or Prime Minister, or whatever she calls him], in honour, I must go."? Or had he said to her: "Bev [or sister, or whatever he calls her], I'm afraid it's all up."? Perhaps it was a mixture of both. Certainly Mr Blunkett's blessing has turned out to be of no greater value than Mr Major's confidence.

The party line is, of course, that Ms Hughes, on learning of her error, did the decent thing. Everyone then emerges with credit. Thus we can add Nurse Cavell to the list of eminent women whom Ms Hughes so much resembles. The place of the German firing squad is accordingly taken by the Tory tabloids, though in reality all the papers, whatever their predilections, were uneasy about what had been going on in Bulgaria and Romania. Indeed, the one-legged roofer seems likely to fit the position in political mythology once occupied by the two trade unionists required to insert one screw.

Just as it is hard to establish whether somebody has resigned or been sacked, so it has become the convention that resignation, far from being an admission of incompetence or culpability, is a polite formality, like an apology for failing to pass the salt. Ms Hughes, we are given to understand, will shortly be back in government, not perhaps in the Cabinet (where, we are told with equal unanimity, she was inevitably heading), but certainly in a senior post.

It is all very odd. We can acquit her of any dishonesty. Still, her memory does not seem to be her strongest suit. We all know that a lot of paper passes before ministers' eyes. But one would have expected her to remember a fairly recent letter from a colleague, Mr Bob Ainsworth, then in the same department, about the very matter which has been engaging papers and Opposition alike for the last month.

Mr Blunkett looks a fool because he decided to take on the Tory press (even if, as I say, the whole press was uneasy) and ended up with a bloody nose. No one can blame him for this: he lost, that is all. I even have some sympathy with him over his attacks on civil servants which have offended constitutional traditionalists. The reason is that they are no longer traditional civil servants at all but, rather, employees of agencies which have been deliberately detached from their sponsoring departments, always assuming you can discover what the department is.

Mr Howard is certainly guilty of muddling those seeking asylum with those seeking work. But Mr Blunkett and Mr Blair have contributed to the muddle also by trying to serve two masters: the one, the Daily Mail and The Sun, and the other, enlightened opinion in the country. They cannot, I am afraid, do both.

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