Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's Government Is in Danger of Suffering a Horrible Fate

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's Government Is in Danger of Suffering a Horrible Fate

Article excerpt

Gordon Brown and Robin Cook are both clever men. Mr Cook may not look like a foreign secretary and Mr Brown came to office young - the youngest chancellor since Gaitskell - and inexperienced. But when they were appointed, it was widely assumed that they would be up to the job. Both men have spent the last few weeks undermining that assumption.

Kashmir is an insoluble problem, because it involves an irreconcilable conflict between fundamental principles. Under the principle of self-determination, Indian Kashmir ought to be part of Pakistan. But there is also the principle of the integrity of states. India is a coalition of ethnicities and religions. It always appears fragile, yet has proved durable; but if Kashmir were allowed to secede, disintegration might follow. So the Kashmir question is one of great sensitivity, in a subcontinent where political leaders are quick to take offence and always scrutinise nuances through a powerful magnifying glass.

Mr Cook was briefed on all this by his officials, and seemed to have no difficulty taking it on board. But when he got off the plane, he simply disregarded the briefings and the warnings. Then Mr Cook had the nerve to tell us that it was all the Tories' fault for arranging a royal visit on the anniversary of independence, as if Kashmir would have been any less sensitive in 1996 or 1998. It is inconceivable that Mr Cook believes what he is saying; by offering such a pathetic excuse, he insults the intelligence of the British people.

Mr Cook's behaviour has been simultaneously arrogant and frivolous. So has Mr Brown's. A few weeks ago, a `fly-on-the wall' television documentary appeared commemorating Mr Brown's first weeks at the Treasury. It is almost always a bad idea to allow such programmes to be made; any wise politician knows that there is only one sensible way to treat flies-on-the-wall: swat them. Gordon Brown has many private virtues; none of them was captured on celluloid. Instead, he came across as charmless, shallow and vain; it was is if he and his spokesman, Charlie Whelan, were competing in an audition for the role of Mr Toad.

Mr Brown was shown treating the then Treasury press chief, Jill Rutter, with disrespect. A new chancellor is entitled to pick a new press chief, and though Miss Rutter is an able civil servant, she may not be ideally suited to the job of press spokesman now. In earlier years, she had been John Major's private secretary when he was chief secretary and she was later seconded to the No. 10 policy unit. So perhaps Mr Brown and his political advisers thought that this compromised her impartiality. If so, that was silly of them, but parties that have been out of power for 18 years are entitled to a few foolish misjudgments in their early days. But they are not entitled to treat officials with disrespect as Mr Brown treated Miss Rutter; it is to be hoped that Robin Butler, Terry Burns and indeed the First Division Association have all made that point to Mr Brown, forcefully.

But Mr Brown was not just guilty of bad manners. While he was refusing to look at Miss Rutter, let alone listen to her, she was trying to teach him how to be a grown-up minister - and how to handle marketsensitive information. In recent years, most central banks and finance ministers have become much more ready to use the press to prepare markets for shifts in policy, to ensure that there is no overreaction. For some months now, Alan Greenspan has been signalling his intention to raise interest rates, and even the once secretive Bundesbank briefed in advance of its recent rate rise. …

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