Political Commentary : No news is good news where Ms Short is concerned

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The Independent Online
Ms Clare Short has had, appearances to the contrary, an excellent week. My fellow commentators in the broadsheets have depicted her as the latest in a not very long line of socialist thinkers: R H Tawney ... C A R Crosland ... Clare Short. As such, she is being penalised for her independence of mind and courage in speaking it. To the Tory tabloids, she is Calamity Clare, who (as in a school story by Angela Brazil) is forever getting into scrapes.

When, by the way, did you last hear "scrape" used in ordinary conversation? It is almost exclusively a book writer's word. Likewise with "zany". That is a newspaper word. So too is "gaffe". Ms Short is not called zany but she is certainly accused of committing gaffes.

I have, as it happens, a good deal of sympathy with many of the causes she has espoused over the years. For instance, I would not hold an inquiry into the legalisation of cannabis but simply legalise the stuff straightaway, together with numerous other drugs; while others again, including heroin, would be available on prescription. I deplored the smears which Mr Peter Mandelson and his acolytes tried to spread over the Liberal Democrat candidate at the Littleborough by-election on this question, and was only sorry that Labour was not punished for its disgraceful campaign by failing to win the seat.

I would not exactly want to pay more tax, as Ms Short is supposed to. But I can quite see that the election of a Labour government would entail my paying more. That likelihood would not necessarily prevent me from casting my vote for Mr Chris Smith in Islington South. Ms Short, incidentally, may or may not earn more than I do. But the assessments of her income given in the papers seem distinctly on the low side, neglecting as they do the parliamentary allowances which she receives.

Someone remarked that, if Dr David Clark had said the same, no one would have paid the slightest attention. This is true. Dr Clark is the Shadow Minister of Defence. Dr Clark is not News. Nor is the other one, Mr Tom Clarke, the Shadow Minister for Disabled People's Rights. Nor are most

members of le cabinet fantome.

All ministers, shadow or real, have a better chance of becoming News if they are also women. Thus Barbara Castle was News, whereas Tony Crosland was not. Today Ms Harriet Harman is News, because she is pretty and has a propensity, like Ms Short, to land herself in trouble of one kind or another. She is also News because she is News: like the man in the Henry James story "The Papers" who was famous for being famous. The process feeds on itself. However, Mrs Ann Taylor is not News. Dr Marjorie ("Mo") Mowlam is almost but not yet quite News, though she shows distinct promise, carrying around as she does a general aura of indiscretion tinged on the edges by a hint of naughtiness.

As Ms Short also possesses this quality - and as the papers are liable to pick up, magnify and distort her lightest observation - she should, it might be argued, think hard or, at any rate, harder than she appears to before she opens her mouth. But then, if she followed this regime of self-denial rigorously, she might cease to be News. Would this be a good or a bad thing from Mr Tony Blair's point of view? Who knows? It is difficult to say.

Mr John Prescott is News too, and he is not even a woman. He is News because the papers can build him up into a bit of a character along the lines of George Brown or Quintin (though not Douglas) Hogg. Part of the reason why he can be built into a newspaper character is that he is or thought to be liable to say the wrong thing.

The latest thing Mr Prescott has said is that he too is middle class. This observation has generated so many acres of footling newsprint that I think that all features editors have gone collectively off their heads. I do not propose to add to the area, except to ask that if someone who attended the universities of Hull and Oxford, drives a Jaguar, lives in a large, detached Victorian house and receives a parliamentary salary (plus allowances) is not middle class, then who is? Anyway, as Sir William Harcourt might have remarked, we are all middle class now.

Mr Prescott also knows more about transport than any other member of the Shadow Cabinet. Ms Short is supposed to know about it as well. She was meant to expound Labour's policy on the subject, or the lack of it, over the airwaves at the beginning of the week. Instead she was withdrawn from circulation by Mr Blair's press officer, Mr Alastair Campbell, with the active encouragement of Mr Blair. The difficult task of explaining Labour's attitude to rail privatisation was undertaken by Ms Short's deputy, Mr Brian Wilson.

This was not a punishment, or not exactly. It was rather that Mr Campbell did not trust the interviewers to refrain from asking, or Ms Short to insist on answering, questions about income tax. Mr Campbell cannot control interviewers, hard though he tries. He was almost certainly right in thinking she would indeed have been asked about tax.

Equally, Ms Short should have been able to forestall them. Any competent politician should. If Ms Short cannot be trusted to do so, she is not fit to be in the Shadow Cabinet. And, if she is not fit to be in the Shadow Cabinet, she is not fit to be in the real one either.

In 1980 Mr Tony Benn forced a change in the Parliamentary Labour Party's standing orders whereby all elected members of the Shadow Cabinet must be accommodated in the real one, though not necessarily in the positions they had previously occupied. Nor, as far as I can see, is there any prohibition against reshuffling the Cabinet in a month's or even a week's time. There have been hints that Mr Blair may either jettison or ignore this requirement: but so far the position has remained as it was.

Mr Campbell, or whoever does his job at No 10 - it will almost certainly be Mr Campbell - will not be able to treat ministers in quite this way. Nevertheless, I sympathise with his present predicament, up to a point. Labour lost the last election, against all expectations, because the voters did not take to Neil Kinnock personally, because John Smith foolishly disclosed his prospective Budget at the beginning of the campaign and because the Tory tabloids then proceeded to do the fiscal demolition work which the Tory politicians had seemed incapable of carrying out.

Of these factors, only the last remains. It is unlikely that Labour will be able to keep quiet for ever about tax. But it is perfectly possible for frontbenchers to leave the answers to Mr Gordon Brown, to his deputy, Mr Andrew Smith, and to Mr Blair himself. It is not really very much to ask of Ms Short or of anyone else who has voluntarily become a member of the Shadow Cabinet. If she feels the need to impart her every thought, she can retire to the back benches - or even try her hand at writing a political column. But I suspect that being News has gone to her head.