Matthew Norman: Of all the New Labour toadies, Jack Straw must be the worst

His entire career is a gruesome paradigm of the enfeeblement of Westminster politcs

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Even to so sensationally talentless a soothsayer as this one, writing hours before the big event, it seems a safe bet that the most dangerous member of the panel got away with it on Question Time last night. But then he always does, doesn't he, that slippery eel Jack Straw?

In a bewitching display of transference, the country awoke yesterday in a frenzy of concern about the perils posed to what passes as British democracy by Nick Griffin, an obnoxious creep, yes, but fundamentally a mirthless joke with the same prospects of affecting public life one iota as Andrew Neil has of being cast as the lead in a Cary Grant biopic.

Meanwhile, this newspaper devoted its front page to news of Mr Straw's latest assault on the kind of democratic principle we once regarded as sovereign, and all too few eyelids will have blinked in alarm. The Injustice Secretary's attempt to win the power to render public inquests public no more, and have them held under such blanket secrecy that even the deceased's family would be excluded, isn't merely a scandal. It is an outrage that would, in a less ovine and apathetic nation, lead to the overturning of ministerial cars and the lobbing through Whitehall windows of Molotovs.

Unusually, the fact of this one is arguably less offensive than the method. Perhaps it's just being inured to attacks on civil liberties and human rights after a dozen years under a government that cannot glance at them without sending its valet off for the hobnail boots. The list is so long and familiar (right to silence, right to trial by jury, habeas corpus, DNA storage etc, etc) that the tolerance level rises, as it does to arsenic.

This one is certainly poisonous enough. To deny the grieving their right to learn how and why a loved one died, and who was responsible, is as wickedly cynical and self-serving an aim as the reasoning behind it is transparent. The next time a family of heartbroken Brazilians come to town to hear how an unarmed relative was gunned down on the Tube, it would be spiffing for the Government to express deep regret that the demands of "national security" dictate that neither they nor media and public can hear whatever evidential crumbs the Metropolitan Police deigns to flick from its tunic. When next a British serviceperson is killed by American "friendly fire", what a relief to spare the Pentagon the trouble of refusing to assist the inquest in any way. The desire of our ally to evade embarrassment must always trump that of British nationals to win posthumous justice for next of kin. The need to protect the police from impertinent inquiries about homicides will always come a close second to the paramount need to protect spooks and ministers from insolent questioning about security fiascos of the kind that enabled the bombings of July 2005.

This much we have known for a while, so it would be faux naïf to swoon like a crudely propositioned Victorian maiden every time the pattern is confirmed. All one can do is hope, with virtually zero confidence, that David Cameron means it when he promises to reverse this foaming tide of disdain towards the rights of humble subjects.

What startles even this grizzled student of New Labour autocracy is the method Mr Straw deployed, in vain, to get this one on the statute book. Twice before he had tried, and twice been rebuffed. As recently as May, having reintroduced it back in January, he withdrew the measure from the Coroners and Justice Bill, apparently accepting that the political opposition was too fierce.

"It is clear the provisions still do not command the necessary cross-party support," he said. Within six months of that grudging admission, he elected to circumvent that opposition by burying these proposals deep within the Bill, although not deep enough to evade the prying eyes of the Lords, who soundly rejected them. In one sense, there is something pleasingly holistic about this approach. How better to pass law granting unjustifiable secrecy than by stealth? In another sense, so arrogant and blatant violation of democratic principle induces violent nausea.

But then so does that laureate of sneakiness Jack Straw. Barbara Castle, whose Blackburn seat he inherited, once said, without warmth, that she hired him as a special adviser in the mid 1970s for "his guile and low cunning", and the old girl knew her onions there.

His gift for dodging responsibility verges on genius. Time and time again the hand of censure has brushed his collar, and each time he has slipped it and vanished into the night. Over his complicity as Foreign Secretary in the rendition and subsequent torture of terrorist suspects, he escaped by the skin of his teeth. What deniability he had – and his story changed, in the most legalistic of language, after an initial blanket denial – rested entirely on being given the benefit of a gigantic doubt that he never asked the most obvious questions, or turned his deaf ear to the answers if he did. As Martin Bright wrote in the Independent on Sunday, his self-alleged lack of curiosity about the outsourced torture of British nationals is astonishing.

The man's entire career serves as a gruesome paradigm of the poverty and enfeeblement of Westminster politics. The granddaddy of the professional politician, he blazed the trail so well worn now by gliding seamlessly from leftie student activist to legal qualification to unelected adviser to MP to Cabinet member, quietly jettisoning every belief he once professed along the way to speed the journey.

The one thing we can be sure Mr Straw believes in is Mr Straw. His ambition is unquenchable. When his one serious mistake (deflecting transatlantic glory from Mr Tony Blair by cuddling up to Condi Rice) cost him the Foreign Office, he accepted humiliating demotion just to stay in the game. His transfer of allegiance from Blair to Brown, whose leadership "campaign" he managed (and hats off for winning that one), was comical in its fervency. Even now, be sure that he is scheming to position himself as the Jim Hacker compromise candidate should Labour somehow locate the energy required to ditch the PM.

Tragically, there would be worse electoral choices. As viewers doubtless observed on BBC1 last night, he is adept at promoting an image of calmly authoritative blandness, hence his comparative popularity, and a grandmaster of televisual smoothness. He is as slimy as an oil slick, and always quick to move on once he's coated the vulnerable birdies with filthy tar.

An utter disgrace to every high office he has held, Jack Straw has, typically enough, evaded the widespread loathing attracted by Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Campbell and the rest, despite being one of only three ministers to remain in the Cabinet since 1997. In an all-star team containing Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Zidane, only the more obsessive fan would notice Patrick Vieira unflamboyantly putting in the hard work in defensive midfield.

But viscerally loathed he should be, for the damage he has done us in the cause of personal ambition, and for the damage he hopes to do yet by bringing this pernicious law back to the Commons. Perhaps in time he will be. A painful inquest into the death of New Labour approaches, and whatever Jack Straw's feelings on the matter this one will be held in public.

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