The new Joan of Arc, or what?

Steve Crawshaw spends a week with the saintly Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, and is impressed as she sets to work on changing the world
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The Independent Online
She strews optimism like brightly-coloured confetti on a summer's day. "Isn't it wonderful?" she keeps asking, as she talks of "beautiful opportunities" and "history going in a beautiful cycle". After a day of this optimism has washed over you, it becomes difficult to resist.

Clare Short, the woman the tabloids once loved to hate, now runs a ministry of her own. And, she wants the world to know, she is loving it. As Secretary of State for International Development, she is in charge of the country's most forgotten department - what used to be known as the Overseas Development Administration, often perceived as merely giving away "our" money to the rest of the world, a kind of lottery writ large. Ms Short clearly finds it astonishing that her department's work is somehow regarded as less important, or less marketable to the public.

She was sacked as shadow transport minister after being too outspoken. Now she says: "It is extraordinary that to go from transport to the future of the planet and its people and these high levels of poverty is considered a demotion. But in the pecking order of British politics, it is."

The woman who famously confronted The Sun over Page Three girls, and who is now one of Britain's most popular politicians, is not likely to shy away from a tough fight. She insists that Britain can help to spearhead change around the world.

Listening in to a string of her meetings this week - World Bank officials, an African finance minister, a Latin American ambassador, media advisers, debt advisers, a non-stop stream that is barely interrupted by a couple of early-afternoon Pret a Manger sandwiches - the overwhelming impression is of an enthusiasm which carries her through the day, on to the next day and the day after that.

Ms Short, once herself a civil servant, fairly gushes about those now working for her. "You see what fabulous discussions we have here. They're special, the people here. There's this wonderful mix of experts and civil servants. The mix is just beautiful." Her civil servants seem ready to return the compliment. "It's very exciting," says one official. Another says admiringly, in her presence: "It's frightening, to have the Secretary of State trying to measure our progress towards the things we want to do."

Ms Short and her advisers are more than busy. This week, they were discussing the preparation of a White Paper on aid. She hopes to launch it with a fanfare, in time for it to enjoy a "starring role" at the party conference in the autumn. The idea sounds like a contradiction in terms. But if anybody can give aid a starring role, then it must be Ms Short.

The main thrust of the paper is likely to emphasise the idea of "partnerships" with countries receiving aid - and, above all, the idea that real and permanent change can be achieved. She is scornful of any approach which fails to attack the root causes of poverty. "Elimination, not alleviation" of poverty has become her buzz-word. Fantasy? Maybe. But it would be a brave man or woman who would say so in her presence.

"History," she says, "has created an opportunity. History does move in eras ... We are beginning to see political change across the world. The ageing Sixties kids - which we are - are starting to come to power, in different countries." Taking as her starting point a report by the OECD, "the Rich Countries' Club", which argues that it would be possible to halve poverty by 2015, she wants to to do just that.

Labour criticises the Conservatives for halving the level of aid over the past two decades. But - partly, no doubt, with a view to keeping Gordon Brown sweet - an increase in the departmental budget is not top of Ms Short's proclaimed agenda. She insists that quality and targeting count for more than quantity. Labour has pledged to more than double the level of aid to the 0.7 per cent of GNP recommended by the United Nations (the current level is 0.27 per cent). But she gets agitated if anyone starts pressing her for targets or deadlines. Instead, she emphasises that increased aid does not in itself solve the problems. She says more money could, at one level, merely lead to more fiascos like the Pergau dam in Malaysia, where aid and trade were notoriously merged, more for the benefit of UK contractors than local people. "I am irritated with a lot of people who think it's the only question about development. We could double our spend, and have more Pergau dams."

Her predecessor, "poor Lynda Chalker", was "a good woman, fallen among thieves." One constant problem for Baroness Chalker was that her department was subordinate to the Foreign Office, for whom commerce and realpolitik came first - hence, Pergau.

Theoretically, the new Foreign Office is now "ethical", so the game has changed. And Ms Short believes it is "phenomenally important" that there is now a separate department, with its own Cabinet seat. "The Foreign Office have to look to Britain's short-term commercial and political interests ... Once you have said development is a key priority, you take it away from those other considerations, and say we want to elevate development in its own right."

There will, she says, be "creative tensions". The Foreign Office, Treasury and others will sometimes have different concerns. But woe betide them, one suspects, if they try to put Clare Short in the corner.

Her unceremonious booting out as shadow transport secretary last year clearly still rankles. "It was public humiliation - and that is not a pleasant thing to happen to anyone." She insists, however, that it was the manner of the removal, not her place of exile, that offended her. "If, when I was asked to do transport [in 1995], I had been invited to do either transport or this, I would have chosen this. I love the portfolio. I want to stick with this for long enough so that it's absolutely bedded in. I'm determined that Britain will use all its influence everywhere to get the world committed to halving levels of poverty by 2015 - and going on to seek eradication of poverty. It's the most important thing you can do."

Clare Short may have seemed to the "people who live in the dark" (her phrase) to be a danger for the carefully constructed unanimity of New Labour. From the outside, it seems the other way round. Clare Short, perceived as Decent and Outspoken Human Being, is an asset that the party can ill afford to dispense with. Even now, as a loyal government minister, her presence provides a guarantee that the party cannot get too arrogant or devious. She would be the first to cry foul. After last year's mauling, she received more than 2,000 letters of support.

Even now, she sees no need to button her lip. At a meeting with colleagues from the Labour Party, she notes in passing the extravagance of some of the venues for government hospitality. "Lancaster House - it's a very big place. I think we should flog it off." There is a frisson as the media warning lights start flashing among the Millbank-trained crowd around the table; they indicate to the minister that the journalistic fly-on- the-sofa is still sitting across the room, notebook in hand. She looks up, startled - and grins.

Ask what she thinks about the continuing attempts of Labour's media-masters to keep loose cannon in the party under control, and she makes evasive comments, while her expression twitches at the thought of tossing out some honest and mischievous remark. Finally, she decides to be more or less discreet, for the moment. "You're trying to get me into trouble," she says happily. And moves on.

The department remains only one chunk of her life. Her in-tray in her ministerial office includes a giant pile sent down by the constituency secretary in Birmingham Ladywood, whose MP she has been since 1983. She drives herself or takes the train to Birmingham for weekend constituency surgeries; while in Ladywood, she lives with her mother. Swimming with friends at the local pool remains a regular fixture. Then perhaps the cinema for escapist relaxation (Babe, the cute pig-as-sheepdog fantasy, was a favourite last year; Trainspotting was not), followed by an Indian meal with friends. Reading is mostly boning up on international development. After publicly sharing her happiness at being reunited with her son Toby last year - an event which triggered yet more public warmth towards her - she now asks for privacy in that regard. But it is clear that mother and son remain close.

Even as Secretary of State, she sometimes still travels to work by bus, where she rubs shoulders with the man and woman on the real Clapham omnibus, the 77A. (She does not seem keen to talk about this; media trivialisation, she seems to be muttering under her breath.) Standing in the morning bus queue is unlikely to remain part of the ministerial routine: because of some fabulously arcane Whitehall rules, she is allowed to take her scarlet dispatch boxes on trains, but not on buses. But, however she gets to work, Ms Short is determined not to become part of the chauffeur-driven other- worldly classes.

Asked about her current popularity, she tells a cautionary tale. "We were shopping in Sainsbury's with one of my sisters, for a family do. People kept coming up and saying nice things. My sister said: "But what will they be saying in two years?" I said, that's right. But the important thing is that I've got to still be here - in Sainsbury's, on the train, on the street. If they're saying: "Huh! Not so pleased about that!", we need to hear that. I think the Tory government separated itself from the country in the end. It's lovely to be loved, and for people to be nice. But it's also a responsibility. If you start to disappoint people, you've done something dreadful."