Magazine article The Spectator

The Future Face of Labour

Magazine article The Spectator

The Future Face of Labour

Article excerpt

The last week has given us our first, unexpected glimpse of the post-Blair era. There has been a crisis at the airports, a massive terrorist plot averted.

Yet the only sign of the Prime Minister has been blurry pictures of a pair of floral swimming trunks disappearing into the Caribbean. Instead, the two politicians running Britain last week -- leaving aside the wretched figure of John Prescott -- were the familiar figure of John Reid and a diminutive 38-year-old of whom we will be hearing much more in the coming months.

When Douglas Alexander was appointed Transport Secretary, his new role was seen as one of the more thankless junior Cabinet jobs, involving sporadic rows over the railways, congestion charging and carbon dioxide emissions. But last week he found himself propelled into the front line in the war against terrorism, co-ordinating the emergency security regime across British airports, and taking the measures necessary to thwart those members of the alleged plot still presumed to be at large.

Yet on Tuesday last week he had nothing more taxing on his mind than how to catch a lobster. Holidaying on the Isle of Mull with his family, he was feeling frustrated: he had trapped only a single crab. 'I took a call from the permanent secretary [Sir David Rowlands], ' he says, 'indicating that there were matters he needed to have somebody brief me on, but was not able to do so over a open line.' So an official had to be sent to find and brief him in the Inner Hebrides.

'That official had no idea when action would be required to be taken, he said, ' -- the police had not decided precisely when to swoop on the suspects. 'But I made a judgment that I should nonetheless immediately return to the department to lead its work.' An RAF helicopter picked him up from Mull and by 5 p. m. on Wednesday he was back at his desk, being told about the chaos and uncertainty that was about to engulf Britain's airports. 'Almost exactly on the conclusion of that exercise and briefing at which I was anticipating returning to my London flat, we were given an indication that the action was likely to commence on the basis of an operational decision reached by the police.' Mr Alexander, you will note, talks like the lawyer that he is.

Here, at last, was the political moment that had been predicted for Mr Alexander since he entered parliament aged 29. He has always been regarded as the protégé of Gordon Brown, whom he has known since university days. The two share the same Presbyterian upbringing, interests and political outlook. But if this was his true Cabinet debut, it was by no means an unqualified success.

While police and intelligence services acted quickly, the defining images of the week were of confusion in the nation's sweaty terminals, as 10,000 holidays were disrupted and acrimonious arguments broke out between the airports and the airline operators. Mr Alexander does not duck responsibility. The instruction not to carry liquid on aircraft was his, he said.

'Yes, I took the decision on the basis of advice from the best technical, security and scientific evidence available to government.

Our own experts have talked with aviation industry experts. But ultimately the responsibility for public safety rests with government and it is up to government to set the appropriate regime.' But was it fit for purpose? 'I have been assured on the basis of the best advice available to me that we are able to put in place a regime sufficiently rigorous to reflect the level of threats judged by the experts. …

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