Leading Article: Important affairs of state, such as car parks

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IT IS tempting to be censorious. The leaked letters about parking in Horse Guards Parade that we publish this morning provide compelling evidence that a public good has been misappropriated to private ends. But it is also a ludicrous comedy of Whitehall manners.

A committee of the great and the good suggests removing the hundreds of cars that now fill what used to be the public space of Horse Guards Parade. An enthusiastic heritage secretary, Peter Brooke, takes up the idea. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, offers qualified support, but not because he wants to make London more attractive. Rather, he fears that a car park so close to ministerial offices is a security risk, and sees the report as an excuse to remove them without being accused of running scared from the IRA. Other ministers, however, are hostile - and a magisterial letter from a secretary at Downing Street ends the matter by reporting that 'the Prime Minister feels that it would be inappropriate at present to proceed'.

Why? Only partly, it seems, because the closure of Horse Guards Road will eliminate a favourite short-cut for ministerial Jaguars and Rovers. The real pressure to keep Horse Guards Parade a car park comes from a few hundred middle-ranking civil servants. While preaching the merits of public transport and wringing their hands at congestion and pollution in London, they prefer, as most of us might, to come to work by car.

That is why less pressing matters of state had to take their turn, while papers on the car park rose miraculously to the top of ministerial in- trays. Letters glided back and forth across Whitehall for an entire month, replete with wondrously specious and misleading arguments about the environment, traffic congestion and cost-benefit analysis.

Paradoxically, those who believe that John Major's government is in trouble should take heart from the tale. Letters on the Great Car Park Affair were written by at least four Cabinet ministers, and read by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor, the Head of the Home Civil Service, and the Secretaries of State for Home Affairs, Environment, Transport, Defence, Northern Ireland and Scotland. When the holders of the Crown's highest offices have enough free time to worry about such matters, they must be more confident than we realised.