LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
Raging Francophilia is a condition that strongly affects many members of the British middle classes, including Independent readers. It may be on the wane just at the moment because of the strong pound: numerous right-wing commentators have been urging us to swell our breasts with pride as we gorge by the Garonne, or gurgle in Gascony. Big pound: Great Britons. Shall we swagger and gloat about the success of our economy as compared with the over-regulated French and torpid Germans? We shall swagger. We shall gloat.

Well, fair enough; though I have a strong suspicion that the effect of the pound, higher interest rates, mortgage changes and so on will make 1998 a tougher year than is widely realised. Perhaps it is as well to enjoy the summer of '97. There is, however, one aspect of the summer that I increasingly feel the French have got right. They virtually close the whole country down for August. They take their holiday season with intense Gallic seriousness.

This, surely, is wise. Ministers I've spoken to over the past few days are taking proper, long holidays; Tony Blair told them at the end of Thursday's cabinet that August would be taken care of ``because John [Prescott] and Peter [Mandelson] are staying behind''. Despite some unseemly behind-the- palm tittering at the back of the class, it was the right approach. The others, properly rested, will come back much better ministers as a result.

There is just one unexpected refrain: almost everyone at cabinet level says that, although they want a holiday, they genuinely feel less tired in government than in opposition. The reason they mostly give is that they are no longer jumping about trying to react; they are setting the agenda. Their avidity for red boxes, with some having extra supplies delivered to their homes last thing at night, is striking - proper politicians are addicted to decisions, acting like children in a chocolate factory. Jack Straw, however, finds one striking similarity to life in opposition. He has been telling friends that while he was shadow Home Secretary he kept waking up and hearing about Home Office decisions on the Today programme he knew nothing about ... and now he's Home Secretary, it is exactly the same.

Geoffrey Parkhouse, the former political editor of the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper, who died recently, was one of the old-style lobby journalists, a Garrick Club tie-wearing, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking and ineffably languid habitue of the darker recesses of the Palace of Westminster. He got an excellent turn-out at his memorial service this week. Geoffrey was a fierce opponent of this newspaper's partly successful attempt to break the Westminster lobby system, which we regarded as journalistically corrupting and he believed essential to Parliamentary democracy.

But my fondest memory of him comes from a Parliamentary regatta, held a decade or so ago to raise funds for the same church his service was held in: Geoffrey organised a boat and dragooned eight journalists in our shared press gallery room into serious training. We did all right, but the regatta was at best a mixed success. Lord Callaghan fell in. And when Margaret Thatcher set forth in a small boat to award the prize, it turned out that the timings were awry, and a huge barge, towing others, had been allowed through. Suddenly it was slicing through the river towards her small craft at an alarming rate. The barge, we were afterwards told, was filled to the brim with ``compacted human waste'', being towed out to sea for dumping. It missed her; but lobby journalists and MPs, I regret to say, spent a bibulous evening on the Commons terrace, celebrating one of the great ``nearly happeneds'' of modern British politics.

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