Steve Richards: He injected life into politics and was a force for good. But Hain should have gone weeks ago

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The Independent Online

The resignation of Peter Hain was inevitable and necessary. Quite often, frenzied calls for Cabinet ministers to resign are made without much basis, though in this case the media was relatively subdued and restrained. Yet Hain should have bowed out several weeks ago.

Irrespective of the outcome of the various inquiries that are taking place we know enough already to make a judgement. Hain spent more than a hundred thousand pounds on his deputy leadership campaign and failed to declare the donations at the required time. This is not a small sum, casually ignored in the mayhem of ministerial life. It is quite a lot of money, more than any other candidate spent in the deputy leadership campaign. The revelation that the cash was paid through a think-tank that did not produce a single thought before, during or after his failed deputy leadership bid was an added twist that has not been properly explained. I suspect if there was a wholly credible explanation we would have heard about it by now.

At the very least as Work and Pensions Secretary Hain would never have been able to condemn those who failed to claim benefits competently after his own act of incompetence. His credibility as a minister was undermined further when Gordon Brown argued in a supposedly supportive interview that Hain was guilty of "an incompetence". Brown's pre-emptive strike was clumsy. At a time when quite a lot is going wrong for the government, incompetence is not a particularly useful quality for a cabinet minister to possess.

My theory is that Hain wanted the deputy leadership too much. He had been obsessed with acquiring the mini-crown for a decade. When the moment came last summer it all went wrong for him. His candidacy did not take off partly because the backbench MP, Jon Cruddas, attracted the left-wing votes that might have gone to him. As the battle progressed Hain fought awkwardly, constrained by Cabinet responsibility and yet hinting vaguely at a radicalism that went beyond the usual new Labour orthodoxy. Struggling for support, he threw money at the problem, but it made no difference. This was never going to be a campaign swayed by the occasional expensive newspaper advertisement.

In the end Hain came fifth out of six candidates. In terms of the politics, that was punishment enough. Now the chaotic ambition of last summer has cost him his Cabinet career. It is the plot of a novel. Hain's plans for a soaring career led him towards the darkness of the backbenches rather than the supposed high ground of British politics.

There will be much speculation about the impact of the resignation on the government. As far as the biggest picture of the lot is concerned I doubt if it will change much for long. Resignations never do unless they come from Chancellors or supposedly loyal deputy prime ministers. In some ways it is better for Gordon Brown that Hain has gone now. He had become a bleak diversion at a time when Brown is trying to move on from the nightmares of the autumn. There is more of a danger that another ministerial resignation will fuel the dangerous and wrong perception that British politics is sleazy. It is not. Most politicians from across the political spectrum work long hours on less pay than they would earn elsewhere.

What will almost certainly receive less attention is the impact on the government in terms of policy-making. Yet I have spoken to several admirers of Hain in Cardiff who are worried about the consequences for Wales. Hain was one of the few ministers who understood the complex politics of devolution. As Wales Secretary and in Northern Ireland he was subtly engaged, a significant figure in the final phase of the peace process and also in the finely balanced politics in Cardiff where there are ongoing tensions between the Welsh Assembly and the Westminster government. In Northern Ireland before the Assembly was reinstated, Hain also had the space to implement some daring policies in relation to education and investment. Briefly and bizarrely Northern Ireland was probably the most progressive place in the UK. More recently Hain was starting to get to grips with the politics of welfare to work, one of the most important issues in the coming couple of years.

He will be missed also as a senior politician who could occasionally inject some life into politics. I recall Hain as Europe minister taking part in an Independent fringe meeting at the Labour conference a few years ago, bravely putting the case for the euro when it was becoming out of fashion to do so. He was opposed by others on the platform and most of the audience. The meeting was packed and heated. He enjoyed it, saying to me this was the nearest we would probably get to the atmosphere of a referendum campaign. There are few in the Cabinet who are excited by the dangerous, noisy gunfire of political conflict. Too often Hain played safe in order to advance his career, but he was not as robotic as some. His fellow advocate on that platform was Charles Clarke. He has gone too, another figure who dares to think beyond the confines of stifling orthodoxy.

Hain is replaced by the Culture Secretary, James Purnell, who was performing well in that department and is rewarded with a quick promotion. Purnell is known as a Blairite but in terms of welfare reform the old internal divide is close to meaningless. His challenge will be to deliver the new welfare to work policies rather than debate them. There are far too many people claiming benefit for their good or that of the country at a time when public spending is nightmarishly tight.

But the quick promotions for Purnell and Andy Burnham, who leaves the Treasury to become Culture Secretary, raises another question. When are Cabinet ministers going to be allowed to do a job for a sane period of time? Some of them move around so often and quickly that they cannot leave their mark on policy.

Still Hain would give a lot to have any job in the Cabinet in the future. In yesterday's reshuffle Brown focused on the younger generation, hoping that a youthful cabinet will symbolise a government with a future ahead of it. I doubt if Hain will be back.