Magazine article The Spectator

Sheep May Not Safely Graze; but Labour Can, for the Moment

Magazine article The Spectator

Sheep May Not Safely Graze; but Labour Can, for the Moment

Article excerpt

A senior eunuch in a well-stocked harem must have learnt a bit about sex, and there is an analogy with senior civil servants. Though they are supposed to be political eunuchs, they have unrivalled opportunities to observe politicians' intimate behaviour. That is especially true of Cabinet Secretaries. Within days of Tony Blair's taking office, the then holder of that post, Robin Butler, made a comment: the crucial insight for anyone trying to understand recent political developments. It has not happened since early-to-middle Margaret Thatcher, he said, but now, once again, we have a lucky Prime Minister.

There have been recent signs that Tony Blair's luck is not immortal. But poor Mr Hague seems unable to benefit. John Maples, the rightly sacked former shadow foreign secretary - with all the emphasis on shadow - has now added his farthingsworth of criticism. Mr Maples is a negligible figure: the Platonic template of political eunuchry. On the day his letter appeared in which he complained that William Hague had never discussed foreign affairs with him (a double mistake, William; you should have fired him earlier but in the interim you should have humoured him), I came across one of London's most distinguished Arabists. He was reading the Maples letter. When he finished, he put down his Times and an expression of sublime contempt spread across his features. Gazing into the middle distance, he said, 'Would there be any point in discussing foreign affairs with John Maples?' But John Maples's observations were not wholly contemptible, though they could have been expressed rather more rapidly than he managed in 1,200 words of pique -saturated, bile-strewn prose. They had indeed been summarised by E.M. Forster: 'only connect'. There is no need for the Tories to worry about appearing too right-wing, too left-wing or too any other wing. Their task is to re-articulate their political identity and to recover public trust. Until they do that, and however many excellent speeches William Hague makes, Labour losses will not transmute into Tory gains.

Mr Hague made another good speech last Saturday, with some cracking phrases, the best of which was: 'the control freaks have lost control'. He was referring to Mr Blair's recent difficulties in Wales, which have been widely construed as embarrassing to the PM, and which have indeed provoked weeping and gnashing of teeth in No. 10. But this is unjustified. At least for the moment, the fall of Alun Michael and his replacement by Rhodri Morgan will work to Mr Blair's advantage.

Though some of the landscape is so attractive that it could almost be mistaken for Scotland, Wales is a curious place, the Welsh a curious people. As the doyen of political columnists, Alan Watkins, was complaining last week, it is permissible to describe the Welsh in terms which could provoke legal action if they were applied to Jews or Negroes. (Those of us who remain impervious to Matthew Parris's strictures elsewhere in this issue are only thankful that it is still possible to be anti-Semitic about the Welsh.)

In one respect, however, the Welsh are wiser than the Scots. They did not really want devolution. They voted for their Assembly in small numbers by a narrow margin, an outcome which could have been averted if any government had had the foresight to relax the laws on sexual relations with sheep and exempt wide-brimmed welly boots from VAT. (In rural Wales, what do they call a sheep tethered to a lamp-post? …

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