Strange political behaviour at the best of times, it seems almost inconceivable from this punch-drunk, deeply unpopular, but still self-righteous government. All the same, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, is earnestly pleading for greater punishment.
Ten days ago he sent a letter to the Independent, initiating one of the most entertaining bouts of newspaper correspondence for months. He wrote, he said, out of "real anger" at the "almost total exclusion" of the environment from the Labour Party's newly published draft manifesto. Governments, he said, needed "oppositions who can press them on important concerns".
The reaction raged in the letters column last week. Frank Dobson, the shadow environment secretary, bluntly called Mr Gummer a liar, while Graham Allen, the Labour MP for Nottingham North, in a deft reference to the former agriculture minister's catastrophic handling of the BSE crisis, described him as "one beefburger short of a picnic". Mr Allen - like other Independent readers - debunked Mr Gummer's audacious claim that the Government has "a strong environmental record". But it was clear that the original charge had stung.
Unrepentant, Mr Gummer was at it again on Tuesday. "In every other parliament in Europe," he told the House of Commons, "the government, whether Conservative or Labour, are under constant pressure from their opposition on global warming and all the other major issues. This opposition either have decided that the Government are so right on these issues that they cannot attack us, or are so confused that they dare not expose their policy."
It's all good knockabout stuff and has political purpose, for Mr Gummer's choir-boy looks disguise a good ration of low cunning: he is, after all, almost the only cabinet minister to have enhanced his standing over recent years.
But he is also making public a dismay he has been expressing privately for 18 months. After unexpectedly developing genuine concern about many environmental issues, he fights his most bitter battles against cabinet colleagues, particularly those two avid birdwatchers and environmental naysayers, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine. His position is stronger if he can point to pressure from Labour - all the more so since such groups as Friends of the Earth appear to be making less impact these days - and that has largely been absent.
Both Mr Gummer and Mr Dobson have been pressing the pressure groups to take their side in the current spat, Betting on a Labour election victory (for they are thoroughly political, despite their highminded positioning), several issued public statements praising the draft manifesto, while privately admitting disappointment. It was left to Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace - and a former junior Labour environment minister - to say out loud: "The document is not at all up to expectations."
Just months ago, Tony Blair in a keynote speech described the environment as at "the heart" of Labour's "basic ideology". The Labour leader departed from his text to insist this was not a "one-off speech", but would be "followed up with commitment in opposition" and, if elected, "delivered upon in government".
Yet the staccato sentences of the statement with which he launched the draft manifesto contain not a single mention of the environment. Green policies are relegated to a handful of scattered lines in the 40-page document, hedged around with weasel words. The firmest commitment is to reject an anti-pollution measure increasing tax on company cars.
Why? The environment - once described by Robin Cook as the "sleeping giant of British politics" - presents Labour with great electoral opportunity. At the last count five times as many people belonged to green pressure groups as to the Labour Party. Polls routinely report 80 to 90 per cent of the country supporting green policies, while MORI - measuring what people actually do rather than just what they say - describes over a third of Britons as "environmental activists".
MORI also shows that about a third of the electorate now regards policies on environmental protection as "very important" in determining its vote: more cite it than identify taxation, far more than mention Europe or defence, though all of these get much greater space in the draft manifesto. Yet when the pollsters ask which party has the best green policies, the "none or don't knows" always win.
Though you would never know it from this document, two years ago Labour adopted a comprehensive set of radical environmental policies, and has followed them up with equally far-reaching commitments on transport and on increasing jobs through greening industry. To widespread surprise, it also incorporated the environment in its new Clause IV - the result, the leadership admits, of overwhelming grass roots pressure in the party.
All this seemed to lay to rest an old Labour prejudice that the environment is just a middle-class concern. In fact, as the party now accepts, it is the poor who suffer most from pollution and environmental destruction, while green measures usually increase employment and prosperity (recycling rubbish, for example, employs 10 times more people than dumping it). Environmentalism would also seem to fit new Labour's search for a young, modern image.
Yet for every step forward, Labour has taken one back. It abolished a shadow cabinet post on environmental protection held by Chris Smith, transferring the issues to Mr Dobson, who has shown much less enthusiasm. At the last minute, Tony Blair dropped a strong green passage from his last party conference speech. And as one prominent Labour policy-maker puts it, the draft manifesto seems to underline "the increased marginalisation of the environment in the party".
Other insiders point out that the pendulum may swing back again. They ascribe the apparent marginalisation to the influence of such key advisers as Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell who, they say, would be less powerful after a successful election, when spin-doctoring would take second place to policy. And, as Peter Melchett puts it, "the environmental crisis is not going to go away, just because they have not put it in the draft manifesto. Either they will embrace these issues, or events and public opinion will force them upon them."
The US administration has noisily embraced them, after a period of similar indifference, because it has grasped their electoral popularity. Its born- again greenery is credited as an important part of Bill Clinton's commanding lead over Bob Dole, and Tony Blair, who closely follows the President's ups and downs, may yet get the point. In the meantime Labour is providing John Gummer with a pile of free ammunition and giving the Conservatives -for all his righteous irritation - a bit of undeserved fun.Reuse content