Ms Short may have many qualities but she can't knit

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
In August, sensible people carry on working or stay at home, unless they have children at school and are compelled to take their holidays in this month. They certainly do not go abroad unless they have to. In France accommodation is hard to find, while the restaurants tend to shut up shop for four weeks. In Italy whole towns, such as Modena, Parma and Turin, close down completely for a fortnight. In London current affairs programmes take a holiday. I can go about my tasks without being pestered by television "researchers" who would at other times of the year be trying to pick my brains free, gratis and for nothing about Ms Clare Short.

For three consecutive weeks the principal topic of conversation, for those of us who have stayed put, has been Ms Short. In the first week the question was her angry walk-out on being asked on television about the London Tube strike and her contemporaneous election in third place to the Parliamentary Committee. In the second week it was her demotion by Mr Tony Blair from Transport to Overseas Development. Now, in the third week, it is her denunciation of Mr Blair's advisers in the New Statesman (owned by Mr Geoffrey Robinson MP, at whose house in Tuscany Mr Blair is staying). "Whither shall I go from thy spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence?": Psalm 139.7.

There has been nothing like it since Lady Castle was at the height of her energy and egotism, a period brought brutally to an end by Lord Callaghan, who - despite heart-rending appeals on her behalf by her old friend Mr Michael Foot - dismissed her from a real cabinet as soon as he had the chance to form one in 1976. On that occasion Lady Castle had not been guilty of any insubordination. It was simply that Lord Callaghan disliked her.

Whether Mr Blair dislikes Ms Short is unclear. On the Blair Scale of Affection, she would be placed somewhere between Ms Harriet Harman at the top and Mrs Margaret Beckett at the bottom, though nearer Mrs Beckett, and above Mrs Ann Taylor but below Dr Marjorie ("Mo") Mowlam. This is the most exact assessment I can make in our present imperfect state of knowledge. But insubordinate Ms Short has certainly been. She has treated Mr Blair as some hostile critics used to treat Her Majesty the Queen in more deferential times. Instead of attacking her, they would attack her "advisers". Now they have no compunction about criticising the old girl herself for various acts or omissions. But the Queen's advisers were people who really did live in the shadows. We did not know who they were. Nor are we very much the wiser today, unless we take a close and rather unwholesome interest in matters royal.

Ms Short says that Mr Blair's advisers live not in the shadows but in the dark. And yet we all know perfectly well who they are: Mr Peter Mandelson and Mr Alastair Campbell, together with one or two hangers-on who need not detain us further. Far from living in the dark, they seem to pass their time in a blaze of light: part of it, no doubt, reflected off Mr Blair, but most of it generated by their own personal power station. This, indeed, is precisely why they are viewed with so much envy, apprehension and resentment by more senior members than Ms Short (in terms of posts held rather than of votes obtained) of what the French call le cabinet fantome.

To attack them is to attack Mr Blair, for they form a sort of Trinity. In any case, various bits of Ms Short's interview amount to a clear assault on Mr Blair and on no one else.

In February 1960 Hugh Gaitskell sacked R H S Crossman from his position as pensions spokesman after Crossman had differed from the leader's defence policy (for what the party's exact defence policy was at that stage was unclear). But Crossman had not been elected to the Shadow Cabinet as Ms Short has been. Mr Blair could not have dismissed her from the Parliamentary Committee because she has been duly elected to it, even if in our post- modern Labour Party adherence to rules sometimes seems to be regarded as a quaint practice. He could, however, have left her without any phantom portfolio at all, much as he moved her from Transport to Overseas Development.

Mr Blair, through his earthly representative, Mr John Prescott, clearly agrees with the Scriptures that a soft answer turneth away wrath. Indeed, Mr Prescott's adroit performance has aroused as much surprised admiration as, say, a visit by Mr Paul Gascoigne to the Velasquez exhibition in Scotland. Mr Blair is clearly influenced by Ms Short's undoubted popularity in the country and by the obsessive and maybe justified fear which he and those famous advisers of his have of displaying Labour as a disunited party.

As Sir Robert Walpole said: "Let sleeping dogs lie." What was good enough for Walpole is evidently good enough for Blair. I am sure that in this case he is right. I am equally sure, however, that Ms Short is being treated with sentimentality and indulgence by politicians and papers equally.

Last week I referred to her denunciation of Ms Liz Davies at the party conference and her defence of the National Executive's (in my opinion) unlawful action in Ms Davies's case. Whether lawful or not, it was certainly an unpleasant occasion which recalled the worst excesses of Sara Barker's repressive regime 30 years ago at the old Transport House. This week I should like to point out that, if any member of the Shadow Cabinet deserved to be shifted, it was Ms Short. Various parts of Labour policy start to unravel like moth-eaten old cardigans once you tug at them. But that part of policy for which Ms Short was responsible, transport, had not even assumed the shape of any recognisable garment. It was, as it remains, a thorough mess, though in fairness to Ms Short it must be borne in mind that the disarray may have derived less from her than from Mr Blair's advisers. It can only be hoped that Ms Short's successor, Mr Andrew Smith (who was not elected but appointed by Mr Blair), can start knitting fast and produce something with a defined shape before the election.

For what made the Short row more than a mere August diversion was that it happened in the week when, for the first time in many months, the Conservatives started to believe that they might just win. The main reason for this belief was an ICM poll in the Guardian showing Labour on 45 per cent and the Conservatives on 33. A few days later, however, Gallup in the Daily Telegraph had respective figures of 59 and 25.

In 1992 Gallup was the solitary poll to predict a Conservative victory, though it gave the party only a 0.5 per cent margin. At the real election the Conservatives won by 8 per cent. All the other polls predicted a Labour win. It is too early to say whether any tide has turned. But Mr Blair is not taking any risks. That is why he is trying to treat Ms Short with what George Brown once called a complete ignoral.