Short change for a heroine much loved by the people

Click to follow
According to my pocket calculator (the cheapest model on the market which, moreover, does not need batteries) 37 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party are now in phantom government posts of one kind or another. This is not an innovation by Mr Tony Blair, though he may well have appointed the highest proportion, for I have not calculated the percentages secured by his predecessors. But the practice of appointing an entire administration which has existence only in the mind of the Leader of the Opposition was begun by Hugh Gaitskell.

The reasons given at the time and subsequently are familiar enough: "Credible opposition ... mounting an effective attack on government ... detailed work ... valuable experience for backbenchers." We can all write the script. But the real reason is to secure loyalty and obedience. This also is the main reason which has led successive prime ministers to increase the number of members who are part of the government (including parliamentary private secretaries) from 42 in 1900 to 111 nearly a century later.

The argument about providing experience is particularly bogus, as a glance at Mr Blair's new list demonstrates. For example, my local MP, Mr Chris Smith, made a promising start at Environment. He seemed to be not only interested in but knowledgeable about the questions he had to deal with. He was then shifted to Social Security. This is a most complicated subject to master. It needs more than benevolent intentions and general principles. It needs the combined qualities of a Chancery judge and an insurance actuary. It is almost as difficult as working out the cheapest method of travel on the railways. Mr Frank Field is one of the few members of any party who understands it. Mr Smith was beginning to do so.

Alas, he fell out with Mr Gordon Brown over the proposal to abolish child benefit for young persons between 16 and 18 in full-time education. Mr Brown said he was going to spend the money on some other scheme which would benefit even more young people. The payments he proposed to abolish, he went on, unduly favoured the middle classes. I had always supposed that these were precisely the people he and Mr Blair were most anxious to impress. But that need not detain us. For there are two more substantial arguments against Mr Brown's proposal.

One is that promises to spend money on some desirable project which has been saved by stopping some other, less desirable project invariably turn out to be false. This is because the money so saved is swallowed up in the great Treasury maw, to be regurgitated in the form of aircraft for Indonesia, increases in MPs' pay, fees paid to management consultants and other good causes. The second argument is that, even though they may benefit the middle classes, the payments also positively encourage the children of working class parents to remain in full-time education.

For once, the opinion of the experts coincided with that of Labour supporters. Mr Smith agreed. Mr Brown, however, took a different view. Accordingly, so as not to cause any further offence to him, Mr Smith had to go to Health, in a swap with Ms Harriet Harman.

Ms Harman resents the suggestion that she is held in the esteem in which she undoubtedly is by Mr Blair merely because she is a pretty face who speaks more or less properly. And quite rightly so - though I have yet to come across any woman who really objects to being told she is pretty. Ms Harman is a solicitor as well. In her hot youth, she ran the National Council for Civil Liberties (now renamed Liberty) with Ms Patricia Hewitt, who was, if anything, even further to the left. Indeed, if I ever feel the need for cheering up, I refresh myself by rereading Ms Hewitt's speech to the Labour conference of 1979, in which she vigorously denounces the recently departed government and its ministers. But this is by the way.

There have been solicitors who have been great rogues. You come across them every week in the papers. I am not for a moment suggesting that Ms Harman is or is likely to be numbered among them. But you cannot be a solicitor and a complete idiot. I sometimes point this out when friends cast aspersions on Ms Carol Thatcher, who is qualified as a solicitor too. The examinations are or, anyway, used to be more difficult than those for barristers. To pass them requires a good deal of application and a certain amount of intelligence.

I have often thought that the most imaginative thing to do with Ms Harman would be to make her shadow Attorney-General. Yes, I know perfectly well that the Attorney has to be a barrister; just as the Solicitor-General has to be one too. But the appointment of Ms Harman would show that Mr Blair did not intend to put up with any nonsense from the legal establishment. As he is a barrister himself, married to an even more eminent one, and as his prospective Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine is (as far as the law is concerned) of a conservative disposition, Mr Blair is unlikely to make Ms Harman one of the law officers of the Crown. She will just have to get down to mastering the social security regulations, a more onerous task.

All the people I talk to are, however, more concerned with the fate of Ms Clare Short. Ms Harman was moved sideways. Ms Short was demoted, from Transport to Overseas Development, which Miss Joan Lestor had vacated by not standing at the election. For what these votes are worth - they are the result of alliances and bartering arrangements which make the Imperial Court of Constantinople an example of straightforwardness and plain dealing - Ms Short was third in the poll, while Ms Harman was bottom. This made the injustice to Ms Short even more striking.

Ms Short is News, like Ms Harman and also like Lady Castle (who is now attacking Mr Blair for refusing to make old age pensions congruent with the rise in average wages). But unlike Ms Harman, and the still formidable Lady Castle, Ms Short has become something of a popular favourite, both inside and outside the Labour movement, as someone who speaks her mind, without fear or favour. She has come to have affinities in the national imagination with George Brown, with Lord Hailsham and even with Mr Enoch Powell. She is perhaps more loveable than any of them, with the possible exception of Brown at his most vulnerable. Mr Nicholas Soames used to find her highly attractive - perhaps he does still - and would speak of her admiringly on the Terrace and doubtless in other parts of the Palace of Westminster as well.

For myself, I can take her or leave her. I certainly remember her recent speech to the conference in which she defended the National Executive's questionable decision to bar Ms Liz Davies's candidature. But I recognise her appeal - and the popular feeling that under Mr Blair she has not been given fair play. It is a phrase which, in this country, still means something.