Magazine article The Spectator

How Madame Bourgeois Has Come to the Rescue of Mademoiselle Bourgeois

Magazine article The Spectator

How Madame Bourgeois Has Come to the Rescue of Mademoiselle Bourgeois

Article excerpt

There was an animated discussion among the Tories who attended Jeffrey Archer's party on Tuesday. By the middle of the evening, two schools of thought had emerged: the scalpers, and those who wanted to condemn Geoffrey Robinson to a lingering political death. The scalpers argue that a ministerial resignation before Christmas would be the best present Santa Claus could bring the Tories, and also that if Mr Robinson is still a minister when the House rises, he will have survived. Returning to the theme in January would be as appetising as cold turkey after Twelfth Night.

Not so, say the merchants of lingering death. The newspapers will continue to pursue the matter, irrespective of the tides of Yule: I understand that they are now digging into Mr Robinson's business dealings in the Midlands. Come the New Year, there will be endless opportunities for embarrassing ministers. Mr Robinson's finances will come up at every Treasury Questions and every PM's Questions, and even if the spin-doctors devote their entire holiday to defensive preparations it will do them no good: there are no answers. The lingerers are looking forward to asking Mr Blair about his plans for his next summer holiday: will the Blair family be spending it in Tuscany? `Robinson is dead,' opined a former cabinet minister, `and the longer it is before his corpse is buried, the worse the government will smell.'

An increasing number of Labour MPs are coming to share that assessment, but Tony Blair's inner ring is holding firm. The Prime Minister is determined to save Mr Robinson and is ready to pledge his own credibility to do so. That might work, but there could also be an analogy with an oldfashioned sterling crisis. There may come a moment when the Labour whips take on the role of Bank governor, and come to warn the PM that the reserves are about to run out. Whatever the eventual outcome, we are going to hear a lot more about offshore trusts, Mme Bourgeois and Coventry City football club.

In the short run, this has been good news for one of Mr Robinson's ministerial colleagues. Harriet Harman is in difficulty, and were it not for Geoffrey Robinson's hogging all the column inches, she would be in big trouble; deservedly so. Miss Harman has multiple deficiencies. Throughout all her career as a shadow minister, she never for a single moment displayed any of the qualities necessary to be a real minister. She was especially hopeless as shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a post that requires assiduity and brains. All she could do was sit on the front bench and look pretty. But that was enough for Mr Blair. Miss Harman's appearance seemed to appeal to middle-class female voters, and this is a government in which appearance is all. However badly she performs in interviews, Miss Harman is safe, until she loses her looks.

But a lot of Labour backbenchers would like to apply different rules. Miss Harman's standing among her colleagues was badly damaged by the controversy over her children's education. When John Prescott denounced her as a hypocrite, many Labour MPs agreed. She herself is an example of how a privileged education can enhance the career prospects of a person of mediocre intelligence, but that does not endear Mlle Bourgeois to her colleagues, and nor has her ministerial performance.

This has been much worse than it need have been, for on both single mothers and the disabled, Miss Harman has a point. Why should there be three times as many registered disabled in 1997 as in 1979, when health standards and life expectancy have both improved? …

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