The vice of secrecy at No 10

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FRIENDS can be a problem for politicians, as Tony Blair's advisors have reason to reflect this weekend. Ever since the Monica Lewinsky affair became public in January, the Prime Minister has stood loyally by President Clinton, emphasising the warm relationship between the two couples. Last week, sources close to Mr Blair were still insisting that Mr Clinton was a "good president" and a "steadfast friend to Britain" - although it's hard to believe that, somewhere in Downing Street, a damage limitation exercise isn't already taking place in case he is impeached or forced to resign.

What we will get, if Mr Clinton goes, is Pious Tony at his worst, uttering platitudes about the faults which bring about the downfall even of great men. Mr Clinton is not, by any standards, a great man but he is an example of the difficulties politicians can be placed in by their closest allies. So it seems odd, not to say tactless, that Mr Blair's government chose last week to announce what looks like the most blatant example so far of New Labour cronyism: shelving plans to turn the House of Lords into an elected chamber, while pressing ahead with legislation to remove voting rights from hereditary peers.

The decision was taken at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday when it was agreed that a Bill to strip peers of their rights will be included in the Queen's Speech. A far more significant reform, replacing the House of Lords with an elected body, will have to wait until after the next general election. You would think, to judge by the spin from Downing Street, that the question of how to set up an elected revising chamber is so thorny that the Government's best minds have recoiled from it. In the meantime, an unsatisfactory hybrid with an in-built Conservative majority is to be replaced by another, dominated by life peers who support New Labour.

Mr Blair's excuse is that he wants to spare us "constitutional overload", as though it would bother our little heads too much if we had to think about electing two sets of legislators. (They manage in the United Stales, voting for the Senate and the House of Representatives without being carted off to hospital in droves, suffering from a bout of electoral fatigue.)

Mr Blair also believes we can get along perfectly well without a Freedom of Information Act, a manifesto commitment which has been dropped from the Queen's Speech for the second year running. This is because Mr Blair does not want to get "bogged down" with changing the way Britain is governed, which I uncharitably interpret to mean that New Labour, now it is in office, does not see why it should give up the habit of secrecy which served its predecessors so well. Politicians proceed on the assumption that there is only so much truth the voters can stand, and they like to be the arbiters of it.

But Mr Blair cannot prevent us seeing for ourselves the authoritarian social and political agenda which lies beneath his administration's benign facade, nor its reluctance to enact measures which involve a transfer of power from government to the people. Nor is it surprising that the Prime Minister's personal popularity is falling, as revealed in an opinion poll last week, when he plans to stuff the House of Lords with a motley collection of tycoons, lawyers and media executives, whose chief claim to fame is that they are Tony's Friends.

HILLARY CLINTON has the misfortune to be not just a member of that rapidly dwindling band, the Friends of Bill, but his wife. Whether she will remain so, after he ceases to be President, is another question. It is impossible to know whether her tardy endorsement of her husband last week was prompted by residual affection or an attempt to rescue something from the ruins of their joint political project: the almost forgotten Clinton co-presidency in 1993, whose showpiece was to be Mrs Clinton's reform of health care.

Its failure, and Mrs Clinton's retreat into the role of traditional First Lady, is one of many puzzling episodes in the career of this clever, enigmatic woman. Why, when her own political ambitions were so highly developed, did she settle for being the President's wife instead of running for office herself? Why has she defended him so many times, beginning with her TV appearance in 1992 at the height of the Gennifer Flowers allegations? On that occasion she employed an angry mixed metaphor to explain her marriage: "I am not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette."

Her remark drew a furious response from Ms Wynette herself, as well as perplexing viewers who thought the song title entirely appropriate. Monica Lewinsky, moreover, was reported last week to be blaming herself for Mr Clinton's problems, telling friends: "I've destroyed the man I loved." Her remorse has to be seen in the context of a rumoured multi-million- dollar book deal, but the loyalty of the two women closest to Mr Clinton is the most bewildering aspect of the melodrama still unfolding in Washington.

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