`The sooner she goes, the better'

Montserrat is only the tip of the volcano - Clare Short's critics are complaining of much more, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
So now it is two-nil to the people of Montserrat. Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development is to visit the volcano- hit island, it was announced yesterday. That news came on top of a pounds 6.5m emergency housing commitment by her deputy, George Foulkes. It will all cost a lot more than the original plan to give each islander pounds 2,400 and a one-way ticket off the dust-choked disaster zone.

It has not been a happy episode for Ms Short. First there was the "failure of communications", as the Foreign Secretary so delicately put it, between her and the islanders. Then there was her jibe that the whingeing colonials "will be wanting golden elephants next" - a remark she later described as unfortunate. Finally there was her Independent on Sunday interview, in which she complained again of anti-Short spin-doctoring unleashing vitriol "from either or both No 10 and the Foreign Office press departments".

But if the disillusion goes deeper, it is a two-way thing. "Over Montserrat she has demonstrated appalling political nous," said a senior official of one major British aid agency. "And it reflects two fundamental things about Clare Short - that she has total disregard for overseas emergencies and that she is an egomaniac. The sooner she goes the better."

It is not an isolated complaint. "At first we welcomed her. We thought she was unpredictable, but that gave her the capacity to raise the profile of these issues," said a policy-maker in another prominent development charity. "But we knew that her first six months would be crucial, and the truth is she hasn't acquitted herself very well in them."

"A lot of people like her personally because she's not a politician's politician. She's outside the `why is this bastard lying to me' loop. So people are reticent to criticise her," said the director of a third. "But she's a bull in a china shop. She's tremendously passionate, but all our fears about her are being fulfilled."

This is serious stuff, for it comes from the heartland of what ought to be her most supportive constituency. What is the source of their discontent? Yesterday Ms Short was at The London Business School trying to persuade British industry that it has a positive contribution to make to development. She has previously been at the Institute of Directors to proclaim that in this area labour and capital are no longer in conflict. She is encouraging new mechanisms to promote fair trade and ethical business practice. All very New Labour, all very laudable.

"She's a tremendous visionary," said one insider there. "She will lead the department in a new direction." There is praise too for her linking development with trade and debt. She wants to counter Western protectionism and alleviate Third World debt in a more holistic programme.

But, say her critics, there is something very Old Labour about her ideological insistence that such issues should knock emergency aid down the list of departmental priorities. They complain too of old-style statist instincts which say that poverty-alleviation can best be done by governments through other governments. The reality is that assistance best reaches the poorest people through development agencies and other Non-Governmental Organisations.

All this might be dismissed as special pleading by NGOs, whose applications for government cash are being more carefully scrutinised, were it not for the fact that evidence of Ms Short's bias against aid is there in her speeches, most particularly in her asides. And, at a supper for heads of agencies, she began by announcing "I'm not interested in aid". When the aid workers demurred her response was "really snotty".

"She is clever but arrogant," said a fourth senior aid official. "In this field it is necessary to work on many levels - emergency aid, development projects and lobbying for policy change. But she seems to think the first two are unimportant." They contrast her approach with Robin Cook's careful walking of the difficult tightrope between trade interests and human rights in his ethical foreign policy. "She prides herself on challenging assumptions. And she does. But she doesn't always read her briefs properly and her challenges are not always from a basis of fact."

The Department for International Development (DfID) already occupies the most junior position in Cabinet. If it is also at loggerheads with the Foreign Office, the agencies say, the result is the worst possible scenario.

The clashes are not limited to Montserrat, where the Foreign Office believed, after a visit by its minister Lady Symons shortly after the election, that local politicians were probably right when they emphasised the need for British money to redevelop the north of the island away from the volcano rather than pay for resettlement elsewhere. There has been a lack of coherence between FCO and DfID policy in Zaire, Rwanda, Kenya and over management of the World Bank.

"Because of her ego she has a sense of rivalry with everyone," said a fifth leading aid worker. "The only question is will she go or will she be pushed - and if she precipitates a crisis will the department be absorbed into the FCO and lose its Cabinet status as a result?" Some are even talking about her successor. "We need to replace her with a bright young innovator who will restructure the policy in the way Chris Patten did when he held her position," said a senior official in one of the leading agencies.

Quite how much of this disillusion has fed itself into Labour circles is unclear. On his way to Montserrat Mr Foulkes said that the Prime Minister had telephoned him to wish him luck: "He told me he wanted me to resolve the situation and that he was relying on me to do that." It seemed an oddly maladroit thing for the minister to say. Was it bumbling self-aggrandisement or was he trying to distance himself from his boss: "It seemed pretty treacherous in relation to his head of department," one agency director said yesterday.

Labour insiders insist that, despite Clare Short's dark suspicions, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are doing all they can to support her. "Cook is bending over backwards to be good to her," said one. "But she can't go round announcing that she sees plots everywhere." Agency chiefs sadly agree. "In my heart I'm with her," said one, "but my head goes in the opposite direction. In the end if she slips on a banana skin it will be one of her own, not one of theirs. If she is impaled it will be on her own prickles."