Matthew Norman: Goat-herder Gordon has lost his tribe

Leaders prefer to populate the cabinet farmyard almost exclusively with sheep
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The Independent Online

As his personal history repeats itself in a loosely Marxist manner – first as military tragedy, now as political farce – the consolation for Admiral Lord West is that he's been here before. When on 21 May 1982 the Argentine navy sank HMS Ardent, of which he was commanding officer, he was the heroic last man to leave the sinking ship.

Now it's déjà vu for the plain speaking old sea dog. With Lord Darzi joining the other political ingénues in scurrying overboard as the Good Ship Gordon glug-glug-glugs towards the oceanic shelf, Alan West finds himself in the familiar position of last man on deck.

Who would have believed it when, just a couple of years ago, Gordon Brown announced his candidacy for the leadership of party and country? "The task ahead is to build an even stronger economy with even higher standards of living," he winsomely assured us (as Alan Bennett once put it: "winsome, lose some").

"I will reach out to put national interest before sectional interest, and I will form a government of all the talents." Hurrah for that.

And so were born the "goats", acronymic offspring of Gordon's fabled passion for eschewing the narrow and factional in favour of the broad and inclusive. Into his big tent, or circus, came a quartet of experts. Clad in ermine and tethered to their red boxes along with West were Digby Jones, the former CBI boss, as trade minister; Mark Malloch-Brown, erstwhile UN Deputy Secretary-General, as one of Banana Boy Miliband's Foreign Office juniors; and Ari Darzi, the Iraqi-born world-renowned heart surgeon, at health.

Big-tent politics is a splendid thing in theory. But the reason the Millennium Dome was such a clumpingly-gorgeous New Labour allegory, as Andrew Marr and others have pointed out, is that it was a very, very big tent indeed with barely a thing of substance inside it.

This seems to have come as as a shock to the "goats", who imagined, bless 'em, that they'd been hired to deploy their knowledge and experience in the cause of the positive change Gordon had promised. Soon enough it dawned on them that they were expected to be regimental "goats" ... mascots for a retreating political army with a purely decorative role.

Gordon, meanwhile, made an unwelcome discovery of his own. The thing about "goats" is that they are not, by nature, malleable.

They are known, in fact, for their stubbornness. Capra is the Latin for goat, and they tend towards the capricious. This is why Gordon, like all PMs, prefers to populate the cabinet farmyard almost exclusively with sheep.

In the past, British cabinets have had their "goats" too. The phrase "Government of all the talents" was coined in 1806, when Pitt the Younger died and his successor Lord Grenville formed a government of national unity during war with France. During a later war Churchill brought in Lord Beaverbrook as aviation minister, while Mrs Thatcher needed no martial fig leaf to ennoble David Young and make him secretary of state first for employment and then for trade.

Gordon, on the other hand, had no intention of letting his "goats" stray anywhere near real power, and no desire to hear their expert voices. When, within months of joining the Home Office to speak on security, Lord West told the Today programme he could not see the logic of extending the maximum detention period for terrorist suspects beyond 28 days, he was cordially invited to Downing Street for a chat. An hour after his radio declaration, his lordship saw the light and recanted. He has been a most sheepish little goat ever since.

The others have been truer to their breed. First to leave the pen, last autumn, was Lord Jones. Lord Malloch-Brown – not a character suited to taking orders from a cocky whippersnapper like Miliband – followed suit last week. Now Lord Darzi, whose NHS report "High Quality Care For All" was warmly received in the way good proposals that will be never be acted upon often are, has had his fill. There's nothing curious about the timing. It's hardly as though there's anything menacing like a pandemic on the loose to highlight the need for top-level medical expertise in the health department.

Even so, coming so hot on Malloch-Brown's heels (if hooves have heels; what is this, Farming Today?), it must be a bit dispiriting for Gordon.

It is not the savage blow hinted at in some reports. In happier times, perhaps it would have been. In his current state, however, the loss of "goats" is to Gordon what an outbreak of piles is to a patient in the palliative stage of a terminal illness. A pain in the bum, certainly, but irrelevant to the prognosis.

In fact, this amusingly failed experiment tells us more about the paradoxical credulity of the extremely clever than about Gordon, of whose preference for artifice over substance we have long been aware. No one seems more vulnerable to transparent schmoozing than the highly intelligent. There haven't been many smarter politicians than Roy Jenkins, yet he succumbed to Mr Blair's cheesy seduction technique, over proportional representation, like a horny spinster serenaded by Julio Iglesias. Jenkins's outsize ego never quite got over it.

If the finest Home Secretary and arguably Chancellor of the last century was so easily intoxicated by the fumes of power given off by one PM, you can't be too hard on Jones, Malloch-Brown and Darzi for falling for another's blandishments that their independence of mind was as valuable as their specialist knowledge.

At least it didn't take them long to work out that they were merely sub-plot devices in a surreal fictional narrative. What Lord West was thinking by staying on after receiving the lash for speaking his mind is another matter. Then again, maybe it's best that he stays to the death as a paradigm of impotence for the benefit of potential "goats" approached by David Cameron.

So let us wish him well as he follows the lead of another Admiral the Lord, Horatio D'Ascoyne from Kind Hearts and Coronets, who maintained his proud salute as his ship went down and the salty water lapped over his face.

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