Magazine article The Spectator

Why, Surprisingly, Blairites Don't Agree That Mr Cook Is a Write-Off

Magazine article The Spectator

Why, Surprisingly, Blairites Don't Agree That Mr Cook Is a Write-Off

Article excerpt

Most Westminster insiders believe that the Macpherson report was leaked by a junior minister at the Home Office, who was hoping to force Sir Paul Condon out of office. But Mr Blair decided to protect Sir Paul, so the leak miscarried, and the suspected leaker is now looking edgy and ill at ease. If he is nailed, and it can be proved that it was a minister who was responsible for the leak, which his boss Jack Straw then tried to injunct, the guilty man could not hope to remain in office. With leaks, it is always hard to turn suspicion into proof, so he may survive. But the so-called independent inquiry into the leak will only have credibility if it takes evidence on oath.

The inquiry was, however, designed to deflect criticism, not to uncover the truth. There is absolutely no sign that the moral aspects of the question are troubling Mr Straw, or the Prime Minister. In No. 10, they are only interested in the 11th commandment: `Thou shalt not be found out.' For all Mr Blair's preachy affectations, his political morality is determined by the opinion polls; to him, ethics is what you can get away with. He is fortified in this insouciance by the knowledge that even if ministers are caught out, the government's standing will not suffer. That depends, apparently, on Mr Blair alone, and he seems to enjoy immunity from criticism.

But he is in danger of making one formidable enemy, who has considerable nuisance value. Almost since the day the Blair government took office, the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, has been irritated by its casual contempt for the House of Commons. Important policy changes, which should be announced in the House, are regularly trailered in the press. Faced with the choice between observing the conventions and manipulating the headlines, ministers choose the headlines every time.

Miss Boothroyd takes her responsibilities seriously, as she should. On Tuesday, she was showing Prince William round the Commons, and reminding him in a jocular fashion about the way in which some of his forebears maltreated some of her predecessors. Madam Speaker is well aware that the evolution of her great office, as of the Commons itself, is inextricably entwined with Britain's constitutional liberties. I suspect that she often wishes that she could give Mr Blair a conducted tour of the Palace of Westminster, and a history lesson; he needs it more than Prince William does.

The same is true of Robin Cook, guilty of misbehaviour in accepting a leak of the select committee report on Sierra Leone. In deciding to refer the whole affair to the Committee of Privileges, Miss Boothroyd dismayed the government; its arrogant complacency was briefly ruffled. But she is determined not to let the matter drop, and will almost certainly claim one ministerial victim: not Mr Cook, but one of his deputies, the hapless Tony Lloyd. It is almost possible to feel sorry for Mr Lloyd; this is the second time that he has been the Foreign Office's whipping-boy, receiving chastisement which would have been more deservedly inflicted upon Mr Cook. But just as Napoleon wanted lucky marshals, Tony Blair likes lucky ministers, and Mr Lloyd exhausted his reserves of luck in surviving the last reshuffle.

Mr Cook might seem to be even more unlucky. Not so: he deserves his misfortunes. But the manner in which he received the leak may provide a clue to his changing political ambitions.

Betty Boothroyd epitomises the best of old Labour, but anyone tempted to become too romantic about that declining species should first consider Ernie Ross. …

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