Matthew Norman: The poisonous bully in the Home Office

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the present political climate, it seems a long shot that anyone feels under intense pressure to search for any slightly recherché reasons to salivate at the prospect of the Prime Minister's departure. This banqueting table already creaks under the weight of such stodgy signature dishes as Iraq, personal avarice and fiscal dishonesty. So it's as palate-cleansing sorbet rather than yet another barely digestible main course that I offer up this refreshing fact: Gordon Brown absolutely loathes Charles Clarke.

If it took Jim Callaghan a few days after succeeding Harold Wilson to sack Barbara Castle, Gordon might be expected to fire the Home Secretary (the self-appointed Stop Gordon candidate until this delusion finally evaporated) within minutes of moving next door. In fact, Mr Clarke may not wait that long. If he has one iota of sense - not the tiniest of ifs - he'll do what Cecil Parkinson did when John Major came to power, and sprint to the nearest TV studio to announce his resignation.

Whenever and however it happens, there's a fair chance that anyone passing Norwich Cathedral will hear the sound of cork leaving champagne bottle at about half the speed of Mr Clarke leaving the Cabinet. If so, the celebrant will be Canon Phillip McFadyen, parish priest and father of a daughter, Rachel, who miraculously survived the King's Cross explosion on 7 July last year with minor injuries, despite being a few feet from the bomb when it detonated.

At a meeting of clergy at the cathedral a fortnight ago, Mr Clarke was the guest. Generally at such meetings, a half hour is set aside for debate, but at this carefully managed event Canon McFadyen couldn't ask the question he had promised Rachel he'd put to him: why does the Government refuse a public inquiry into the Tube and bus bombings?

He wrote to Mr Clarke on the matter last year, without the courtesy of a reply, so when the meeting ended he approached his constituency MP and asked it. If the canon was slightly agitated at the time, most of us would excuse this in the circumstances. Mr Clarke isn't most of us, and but for the fact that he has since issued the ritual blithe apology, his response would stretch the credibility even of connoisseurs of the monomaniacal arrogance and sheer bloody malevolence of New Labour ministers. He stared at the canon in what the latter described as "a very nasty way", yelled "Get away from me, I will not be insulted by you. This is an insult", and stormed off past him, leaving the cleric close to tears and too distressed to take part in the Eucharist.

I've spent several hours pondering this incident and I've had a bit of a spin with the thesaurus, but the only vaguely fitting word I can find for this poisonous, puffed up, jug-eared gargoyle apology for a democratic politician is the one word we are not allowed to use even in so grown-up a newspaper unless it comes wrapped in sanitising quotation marks.

It's a word Mr Clarke is alleged to have sprayed around quite often in the past, when faced with journalists at drinks parties involving lashings of claret. That's absolutely fine, of course, even mildly endearing. If he chooses, in drink, to be a foul-mouthed ranter towards off-message hacks, we love nothing more as a breed than knockabout of the kind.

His general manners are not the issue, so we won't dwell on the time when, as a student, he took a date back to his flat, sat her on the sofa, went off to make the Nescafé, and returned clad below the waist in no more than his underpants. Nothing there to make the headmistress of his Lake Geneva finishing school beam with pride, you might think, but it isn't our business to dredge up embarrassing incidents from a man's distant past.

What is our business is to wonder how a politician, or indeed a decent human being, can behave with such imperious disdain towards a mild man (even an animated Anglican cleric is hardly Jeremy Paxman in a dog collar) asking him a perfectly fair question on behalf of a daughter who nearly died eight months ago in an explosion many believe the security services under his aegis could have done more to prevent.

We can only speculate about this, of course, because in the absence of a public inquiry there are so few available facts. But given this Government's general willingness to institute public inquiries, if only to buy time, this absence is something from which we might draw an inference.

All right, you might say, what does it really matter if No Trousers Charlie was bolshy and high-handed towards a priest? As Home Secretary, he is ultimately responsible for graver mistakes than that - the drive to steamroller any remaining civil liberties, the unspeakably gruesome murder of Mary-Ann Leneghan by men out on probation, and much more... These and other grotesque failures of judgement and competence are the things that should make us yearn for the day Gordon Brown kicks the bugger out.

So they are, yet in its way the incident with Canon McFadyen is more revealing. It crystallises in nauseating clarity the disconnection between government and governed hinted at during the last election, when political leaders on walkabouts, unwilling to deal with real questions from electors, insulated themselves with phalanxes of minders.

Mr Clarke presents himself as the modern equivalent of an 18th-century princeling being driven through a town in a gilded carriage, pressing a nosegay to his face and railing inwardly at the sheer impertinence of the starving populace for jeering him on his way. His seething fury has the flavour of a colonel in a moustache-ridden South American junta, offended at a party by a loose remark from a fellow guest, snapping "take that man's name" to an aide before storming off to arrange the firing squad.

He is the very paradigm of the office bully, intimidating all below him while sucking up ferociously to the boss. So it was no surprise earlier this week to find him trumpeting No 10's play-the-man line about sleaze by attacking Jack Dromey. If the party Treasurer didn't know about the loans, he said (as if poor old Dromey didn't spend hours pleading with Downing Street for the details), "you have to wonder how well he was doing his work".

You needn't wonder how well Charles Clarke is doing his work. He is doing it appallingly in almost every regard, seldom more so than in yielding to his master's voice to deny the country an inquiry into the worst terrorist incident in its history; and then by traumatising the father of a woman who watched people die in it for daring to ask him why not. The one blessing, God and Gord willing (and I trust Canon McFadyen will be leading the prayers), is that this rancorous thug won't be doing it for very much longer.