Dominic Lawson: A tale of two ministers: the marvellous Mrs Beckett, and the pointless Mr Hoon

Neither would appreciate the comparison, but there are slight echoes of Margaret Thatcher
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The Independent Online

I have become captivated by Margaret Beckett. It's certainly not because of her political views or achievements. I can't think of any opinion we hold in common. Her career in national politics was forged by ousting one of my heroes, Dick Taverne, from the House of Commons. In her last job before becoming Foreign Secretary she presided over the fiasco of the Rural Payments Agency, which has driven some of my neighbouring farmers into even more than their usual despair.

Oddly, it was Mrs Beckett's performance at the dispatch box this week as she fought off the calls for an immediate enquiry into the Iraq War that brought home to me just what I find so attractive: her complete lack of condescension or faux emollience. These are the two principal characteristics of the modern school of politician. They make my flesh crawl. In contrast, Mrs Beckett's palpable tetchiness as she dealt with a curious cabal of Conservatives and Celtic nationalists was a joy to witness; there was none of that ghastly "I share the honourable gentleman's concerns, but ...".

The Times accused her of "delivering her message with a dismissiveness that no schoolteacher could afford". On the contrary, Mrs Beckett has exactly the manner of a good old-fashioned schoolteacher - one who keeps her classes in order and silences the disruptive squirts at the back.

That same newspaper seemed outraged that "a well-aimed question from Kenneth Clarke was dispatched with, 'I'm surprised he can't understand what I'm saying because it is absolutely plain and simple'." That's my girl! Besides, does Ken Clarke strike you as a person in need of sensitive handling?

Margaret Beckett is especially refreshing when heard being interviewed on the Today programme. The normal New Labour style - and it tends to apply to women as well as men - is a measured tone of such unctuous smoothness that it's hard to keep one's breakfast down. Mrs Beckett, however, always sounds as if she is furious to have been woken up in order to have to listen to such questions, and bites the head off any interviewer who tries to interrupt her answers. Neither woman would appreciate the comparison, but there are slight echoes of what made Margaret Thatcher such a formidable interviewee.

Also like that other Margaret, Mrs Beckett comes in for the sort of misogynistic mockery which still disfigures the mostly male political world. She is regularly criticised for her dress sense - as if female cabinet ministers were meant to be catwalk models. Most unpleasantly of all, she is subject to constant sniping about her looks - as if all the male politicians at Westminster were greatly favoured in that department.

I imagine that Mrs Beckett herself is not too troubled by the annual jokes made at her expense when she takes her summer holiday with her husband, Leo, in their caravan. It has even been suggested that it is not fitting for Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to holiday in such fashion - but it's all of a piece with the fact that Mrs Beckett has retained her home in one of Derby's poorer areas, next door to a pub. If every New Labour Minister had been as uninterested in wealth and fine homes as Margaret Beckett, then the party's reputation for probity would be much higher.

It is in fact with a neighbouring MP from a grander part of Derby, Mr Geoff Hoon, that Mrs Beckett is now displaying her magnificent irascibility - to almost comic effect. Mr Hoon, you might recall, is a most peculiar anomaly - a minister who attends Cabinet, but has no Cabinet rank. Despite - or perhaps because of - his slavish cleaning up of various of the Prime Minister's messes over the years (starting as Derry Irvine's bagman in the Commons), Mr Hoon was demoted in last May's reshuffle from Leader of the House to Minister for Europe. He came out of that Downing Street meeting believing that he had retained his Cabinet rank, and apparently it took some time for Hoon to understand just how much he had been humiliated by the Prime Minister.

Anyone who watched Mr Hoon being interviewed by David Dimbleby on the night of the last council elections will immediately understand why the truth took so long to penetrate his carapace of self-esteem.

Discussing the imminent reshuffle, Mr Dimbleby asked: "Will you be standing by your phone, Mr Hoon?" Instead of the studiedly modest response that one would expect to such a question, Hoon replied: "I suspect I'll be doing rather more than that. I suspect I'll be heading for Downing Street in the morning." The smug smile accompanying that gratuitous remark suggested to the other guests in the studio that Mr Hoon was in line for a promotion.

In fact, it was Mrs Beckett who was promoted - to Foreign Secretary. She herself has admitted that when Mr Blair broke the news to her she let out an immediate "Oh, fuck!". This, it seems to me, speaks of a certain modesty rare in a politician: she was shocked that she had been entrusted with such a responsibility. I am confident that Geoff Hoon would not have said "Oh, fuck". He would doubtless have purred: "Delighted to accept, Prime Minister" and the even more than usually tangible waves of self-regard emanating from him might well have activated most of Downing Street's hyper-sensitive electronic alarms.

Since that débâcle, Mr Hoon has been in a permanent semi-public sulk, which blew up into a proper tantrum over the issue of Foreign Office Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday. At a meeting with civil servants to prepare for the session, Mr Hoon let it be known that, as Minister for Europe, he would naturally be answering the two questions within his presumed area of competence: on the revival of the EU Constitution and on the curbs on work permits for Romanians and Bulgarians. Mrs Beckett declared that she would answer these questions, and when Mr Hoon asked for a reason, she is reported to have snapped - and can't you just hear her saying it? - "Because I am Foreign Secretary." Then, in a blissful moment of inspiration, which reminds us that Mrs Beckett was in the ministerial game when Hoon was barely out of student politics, she suggested to her puffed-up colleague that he "could answer a question about the political situation in northern Uganda" instead.

According to one report, when the first of the two questions on Europe was asked, "Mr Hoon appeared to rise at the same time as Beckett but then thought better of it." So he's a wimp, too. Following this episode, the Tory MP Keith Simpson has put down a further parliamentary question. It simply asks: "What is the point of Geoff Hoon?" Damned if I know; neither do I think that the marvellous Margaret Beckett will be wasting her time to think of an answer.