Jack Straw Falls between the Stools
Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)
Jack Straw is something of a novelty in this government. Whatever is happening around him, he looks as if he is enjoying himself. Even rarer, he gives the impression of thinking for himself. Admittedly, he is rather fortunate in that most of his thoughts chime with Tony Blair's, but this is a genuine coincidence rather than contrived sycophancy. As much as anyone can be in this tightly controlled administration, Straw is his own man.
Again, it helps that he has not had large chunks of his agenda torpedoed by youthful policy advisers in Downing Street. Most of the time, he knows he is carrying out their wishes, although not always. There are cries of impatient anger at the Home Office, as there are in other departments, as ministers await the verdict from No 10 on every small detail of policy. Sometimes, there is a further cry of anguish when the verdict returns. The Home Office, for example, did not want to take on the Lords over whether the mayoral candidates should be allowed to distribute some campaigning material free of charge. Downing Street, with Ken Livingstone in mind, insisted that ministers should fight the parliamentary battle. The Home Office lost, as it knew it would.
Most of the time, though, Straw is a minister at ease with himself, which is fairly remarkable given the battering he has received over the past few months. Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, is only the latest to take a swipe. His particular onslaught was more keenly felt, as Morris has become an ardent government loyalist. Normally, if he has any criticisms, they are expressed privately. Trying to get Morris to comment publicly on welfare reform is as challenging as persuading Michael Portillo to say what he really thinks about William Hague. But when it came to Straw, Morris could not bite his tongue.
The ongoing row over asylum-seekers was preceded by equally passionate onslaughts in the media over Straw's approach to freedom of information. We know how John Prescott would have responded to such a mauling. When the Deputy Prime Minister has a rough time in the newspapers, he hits the roof. Straw remains calm and polite.
Yet Straw, in spite of the attacks, is in many ways a decent, progressive Home Secretary. He came across extremely well, for example, in a late-night Commons debate on asylum-seekers that was held the day before Morris intervened. Even Diane Abbott praised his speech. Straw condemned the use of emotive language and did not in anyway attempt to "out-Howard Michael Howard". Rather, he told Howard that his proposals risked "putting more than 14,000 people on the streets with nowhere to live, nothing to eat and no warmth".
In private, ministers testify, also, to Straw's determined tolerance towards race. I am told, for example, that Stephen Lawrence's father often phones the Home Office; and, in spite of a hectic schedule, Straw takes the calls personally whenever he can. …