Clare versus Blair

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How do you solve a problem like Clare Short? The refrain echoes the song from the Sound of Music in which the mother superior ponders the fate of Maria, the cheerful nun with a congenital inability to abide by the rules.

One can imagine Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Jack Straw wrestling with the same question (though probably with more expletives than that of the abbess) after hearing Ms Short’s latest outburst on The Westminster Hour.

Blair’s official spokesman piously pointed out that the Prime Minister did not hear his International Development Secretary’s contribution to political broadcasting as "coincidentally he was on the phone to a world leader". Damnation indeed. While Blair was talking telephone numbers with Prime Minister Lansana Conte of Guinea (or whoever), Ms Short was pulverising the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility until it pleaded for quarter.

She would quit if Britain went to war without a second resolution. Mr Blair, she claimed, was more reckless than a Roy Keane tackle. It was classic Clare: blunt, opinionated and - let us be honest, here - totally self-serving.

The Prime Minister was naturally furious, but not for the reasons one may think. Short speaking her mind was not what turned Alastair Campbell the colour of Captain Scarlet’s waistcoat; those who have "worked" with her over the last decade or so are used to the Birmingham MP suffering from recurring attacks of candour. What upset the Blair inner circle was her apparent double dealing.

On Friday evening she had been honoured with a private tte--tte with the Prime Minister (a privilege granted only to visiting foreign ministers and anyone with a television camera and a furry microphone) during which he had given her the opportunity to express any concerns about the policy on Iraq. According to Downing Street, she left the meeting without having raised a single objection.

Forty-eight hours later and the same Ms Short invited herself on to the BBC’s The Westminster Hour to share with an incredulous Andrew Rawnsley (and the Westminster press pack) those thoughts she was unable to volunteer to her Prime Minister. If her long-standing dislike for spin and subterfuge was not so well documented, one might have thought she was indulging in those arts herself.

Downing Street’s retribution was to deny her the one thing they thought she most wanted: martyrdom. Like Maria she will remain welcome in the new Labour abbey until she, rather than Blair, decides otherwise. At present the answer to the question, "What do you do with a problem like Clare?" is: nothing.

But this has always been the case. Short has been tolerated and humoured by Labour leaders because they are sufficiently tolerant and humorous to appreciate that what she brings to the table far outweighs the problems lent by her presence.

She may be appalling at developing Cabinet relations but she has been brilliant at international development. It is a testimony to her success that few who witnessed the original line-up of the Blair Cabinet in 1997 would have believed that six years later Clare Short would still be in her job while supposed heavyweights such as Frank Dobson, Jack Cunningham and Frank Field had long departed.

Furthermore, Short has managed the rare feat of winning plaudits from the Treasury and Downing Street for her fastidious stewardship of the department. In those six years she has set up a department from scratch, produced two white papers on poverty and globalisation which are seen as international benchmarks for such work and has doubled the budget so it is now four times as high as that for the Foreign Office.

But international development has also been the carrot which has kept Short within the government. Her devotion to and belief in her work is such that the thought of allowing someone else - particularly if it turned out to be a spotty New Labour acolyte whose world experience extends to a backpacking tour of the Greek Islands - to take over her "baby" has kept her on the ministerial straight and narrow, almost.

Her presence round the Cabinet table has also had its uses. Alongside John Prescott she is one of the sole survivors of old Labour left in the Blairite firmament. On the club and pub circuit of constituency Labour Party meetings and fund-raising events she is a star. One Scottish Labour MP recalled how when she attended a meeting in his constituency in 1999 to talk about Third World debt, more than 300 people turned up. Such people have their uses to a Labour leader whose popularity is based on fusing Labour’s traditional heartlands with its new bases in middle-class Britain. When Clare mouths off about the Dome ("a disaster") or spin doctors ("the men in the dark") or New Labour ("the only thing wrong with Labour was the new bit") or withholding aid for countries which refused to curb asylum seekers ("very silly and morally repugnant"), Downing Street shrugs its shoulders and says: "Clare’s Clare."

Roughly interpreted, this means she is awkward, vain, undisciplined and distinctly unhelpful at times, but it is better to have her - to use the crude words of Lyndon Johnson on Edgar Hoover - "inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in".

Her image as the evergreen student rebel of Labour politics benefits a government with a reputation for control freakery. Though, like a pantomime villain, the part is sometimes overplayed to please the audience. There may have been protests over Page 3 - her infamous private member’s bill to outlaw nudity in the Sun - and the resignation from Neil Kinnock’s shadow Cabinet, but she remains surprisingly Blairite on many issues.

"I have always been a Labour person and I have always been a mixed economy person," she said once, using a soundbite which could have been honed by Campbell or Peter Mandelson. Even her views on spin doctors were thought to have changed after Campbell and Mandelson reportedly helped orchestrate the press coverage when she was reunited with her son Toby whom she had given up for adoption some 30 years earlier. It was in many respects a defining moment for Short, allowing the public to glimpse for the first time the warmth and humour hiding behind the blunt Brummie faade.

Nor is she the typical lefty her critics perceive. Unlike Jack Straw, who spent his student days seeking out unrest, Short confessed she spent her student days at Keele deeply involved in the unlikely pursuit of studying. "I’ve never been a violent demonstrator and I’ve never been into ultra-left revolutionary rhetoric," she once said.

In private she is more likely to praise Blair than bury him. They share similar views on a surprising range of issues, from House of Lords reform to the importance of using trade to resolve development problems. This is a woman who has no truck with the anti-globalisation movement.

"I really can’t tell you how much I disrespect people who claim to be serious and think it’s a serious political act to smash up McDonald’s in a foreign place when they all live in cities and towns which are full of McDonald’s," she has said.

George Foulkes, who served as her deputy at International Development for six years, two in opposition and four in government, tells of the fierce loyalty she commands from her staff.

"I have great respect for her but when I heard her on the radio this morning I went ‘Oh no, Clare’," he says, at a loss to explain why she has decided to speak out now.

"She’s a very emotional person and I suspect she was unable to hold [her silence] any longer," he ventures. But even George fears she may have gone too far this time. The conscience of the Labour movement is testing her masters to the limit. Did she speak out in a moment of passion or was it a calculated political act designed to cause maximum damage to the Prime Minister?

Nobody seems to know the answer. Colleagues say she has been wrestling with her conscience for some time, struggling to weigh up holding on to her department with standing by a policy in which she has lost all faith. In the end, she fudged it. Refusing to resign on principle but unwilling to abide by collective responsibility. How candid was that?

A House divided

Mohammed Nafee Mohammed, a former Iraqi general who fled with his family to Britain to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime:

"Any division within Tony Blair’s government will be encouraging for Saddam Hussein. It is vitally important that Mr Blair has complete support from his Cabinet at this stage.

"I think he will go to war with US President Bush anyway and the Iraqi people are waiting for the war to start and for Saddam to be removed.

"Clare Short should know that when Saddam sees her criticising Mr Blair he will point out to his people that even the British government does not agree with the war. If she resigns, no-one will be happier than Saddam."

Graham Allen MP, former Blair whip, now leading anti-war rebel:

"Clare Short has put into words what the majority of the Labour Party and the public are thinking. You can’t sack her. If you did, you’d have to sack the Labour Party, fire parliament and ask the people to dissolve themselves.

"About half of the Cabinet share her views. They wouldn’t resign over this, because not all people go with their conscience. They can put their career before their principles, which is not something that can be said for Clare.

"I don’t think her career has ended. Certainly under this Prime Minister she will not climb the ladder, but prime ministers come and they go. There’s hope for all of us."

Stuart Crawford, a retired Lt-Col in the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (Scotland’s Own) who served in the 1991 Gulf War and is now a political and military analyst:

"Clare Short’s remarks are indicative of the general uncertainty that is reflected throughout British society. The guys that I know in the army who are out there in the Gulf are not happy about the situation and we should remember that it is no longer 1914 with the Laird’s son leading the faithful estate workers over the top into oblivion.

"Soldiers are far more aware and are encouraged to think for themselves and they are not happy if they feel the country is not behind them. Clare Short’s remarks are part of that.

"They will do their job when they are asked and there will be no mutiny in the field but I feel that whatever happens in this war, Tony Blair has now painted himself into a corner and it is difficult to see how he can survive."

Jenny Tonge MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow International Development Secretary:

"Claire Short’s action indicates that there is no ‘secret evidence’ known only to the Cabinet. Her remarks about Tony Blair’s recklessness mirror the Liberal Democrat view that the inspectors must be given time to do their jobs properly.

"With the huge build-up of US and UK troops in Iraq war now looks inevitable, with or without a resolution."

Roseanna Cunningham, deputy leader of the SNP:

"This has been a very brave move by Clare Short to stand up and be counted on this most crucial of issues. It may not make comfortable listening for Tony Blair, but Clare Short is reflecting a view held by the vast majority of people in this country. Make no mistake that this is a crisis for Labour and one which Tony Blair ignores at his peril."

Michael Ancram, Shadow Foreign Secretary:

"I respect the sincerity of Clare Short’s views on Iraq. However, that is not the issue. What is at issue here is the credibility of the Blair government. The Prime Minister cannot retain in his Cabinet a member who has openly described him and his policy as ‘reckless’.

What she did yesterday marks an astonishing and damaging departure from the whole principle of collective responsibility. The stakes now are very high indeed. Blair’s ability to undertake the delicate negotiations and vital decisions which lie ahead will be fatally damaged by the continued presence of Clare Short within the Cabinet. If the Prime Minister is to retain his authority at this crucial time, he must ask Clare Short to go."