Friday 16 February 2007

16 February 2007

Maybe I’ve just been at this game too long, but there really are times when I wonder if I ought to find myself a proper job.

Do I really toil in the same vineyard as those who think that the fate of a few thousand doomed turkeys is more interesting than the potential nuclear disarming of North Korea? Even if I ate nothing but turkey twizzlers morning, noon and night, I suspect I’d still be vaguely interested in the prospect of a safer world.

Yes, I know, there is a remote possibility that if H5N1 leaps across the species barrier and escapes from one of Mr Matthews’s poultry factories, we could all be exposed to a nasty new flu virus. Note the adjective “remote”. (According to the UN World Health Organisation, 166 people have died of bird flu worldwide since January 2003. That’s substantially fewer than are killed every month on Britain’s roads.)

And yes, I agree, it would be vaguely troubling if the strict rules about how these wretched creatures – or their semi-processed carcasses – are transported around the EU were being flouted. Note the adverb “vaguely”.

But good grief: it’s only five years since President Bush included North Korea on his axis of evil, together with Iraq and Iran. Now, he’s doing deals. And there’s at least a chance that for the first time since South Africa abandoned its nuclear weapons programme when it became a multi-racial democracy in 1994, a country with a real nuclear bomb may be about to give it up. I reckon that’s pretty interesting.

And if, like me, you’re wondering why, after years of fruitless negotiations, it’s suddenly become possible to do a deal, then I suggest you take a long hard look at China. All the available evidence suggests that after the North Koreans conducted their underground nuclear test last October, Beijing decided that enough was enough and leant heavily on Pyongyang. The Chinese are beginning to discover that being very big and getting richer all the time means that people start listening to you. And guess what, they seem to like the feeling.

Mind you, let’s not carried away. For now, all the North Koreans have agreed to is to shut down their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and allow UN inspectors back in. That’s not quite the same as giving up the bomb. But it’s a start – and if they want more help in the form of desperately-needed fuel aid, they’ll have to go further. Some analysts say that what the secretive and isolated North Korean leadership want even more than the bomb is to be treated as members of the civilised world. So now’s their chance.

Friday 9 February 2007

9 February 2007

You may remember, not so long ago, a British political tradition known as “cabinet responsibility”. The idea was that if you were a minister, you were bound by Cabinet decisions. You didn’t disagree with your colleagues in public, even if you disagreed with them in private. If you found that too much of a problem, you resigned. Otherwise, you kept your mouth shut.

It was, in its way, quite a useful tradition. The Number 10 website explains it rather well: "William Pitt (1783-1801) established the right of the Prime Minister to ask ministers to resign. So the conventions of collective Cabinet responsibility and Prime Ministerial control developed. This enabled Ministers to stand together against Parliament under clear leadership.”

But why do I refer to it in the past tense? Have you missed some fundamental constitutional change, perhaps while you were out shovelling snow? Did something important happen while MPs were elbowing each other out of the way to get closer to Shilpa Shetty? (Note to readers recently arrived from Mars: Ms Shetty is a Bollywood film star who emerged victorious and unbowed from the horrors of the Big Brother house. I nearly got to interview her this week, but she pulled out at the last moment. I’ll get over the disappointment eventually …)

Apologies, I digress. The reason why I refer to the tradition of cabinet responsibility in the past tense is that it appears to have been discarded. It is, as Monty Python would have said, an ex-tradition. It has passed on, expired, ceased to be. It is no more.

And the explanation, I think, lies in the last two words of that quote from the Number 10 website: “clear leadership”. Is that what the current Cabinet enjoys? Is Tony Blair -- the first Prime Minister in history to have signaled months ahead of the event that he intends to stand down – in any position to offer “clear leadership”?

Consider: when Saddam Hussein was executed, Number 10 said nothing about the grisly manner of his dispatch. Other senior ministers did, however, and eventually Mr Blair did too. On climate change, Mr Blair said he didn’t think there was much point in cutting back on air travel. Gordon Brown openly disagreed.

Now, you may argue that these have nothing to do with Cabinet decisions, and that they do not, therefore, breach the tradition of cabinet responsibility. Strictly speaking, you would be right. But in the days of Margaret Thatcher – or even in the heyday of Tony Blair – if you wished to disagree with the boss, you either buttoned your lip or you quit. Even John Major, by no means the most dominant of recent prime ministers, was not openly contradicted by his Cabinet colleagues in the way that Mr Blair is now.

Ministers join protests against their own NHS reform plans. Ivan Lewis, the health minister responsible for maternity services, had an exceedingly uncomfortable time on The World Tonight last Tuesday, when Jackie Hardgrave pressed him about his opposition to the closure of maternity wards in his own constituency as part of a reform programme drawn up by his own department.

And poor Lord Goldsmith, who at the time of writing is still the attorney general, has had to launch a fierce counter-attack against some of his own colleagues (Lord Falconer and Harriet Harman) who have been talking openly about how his job needs to be redefined.

I’ll be honest with you: I much prefer open political debate to artificial unanimity. When ministers start sounding like speak-your-weight machines, you can be sure they don’t believe a word they’re saying. So don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m not. Far from it: the more, the merrier, say I. It’s good for democracy and good for journalists. Win-win.

Friday 2 February 2007

2 February 2007

Now, let’s see if I can do this without falling foul of the law, the lawyers, or the BBC thought-police. The time has come, I fear, to tackle the Case of the Downing Street Honours Investigation.

“Watson, I fancy there might be more to this than meets the eye.” Sherlock Holmes removed his pipe thoughtfully from his lips, and tapped it twice against the ashtray. “What do you mean, Holmes?” The good Dr Watson was, as ever, finding it difficult to keep up.

“Consider,” said Holmes, as he rose from his leather chair and strode to the window. “It began, did it not, as a simple case of who paid whom for what. To put it simply: did the man Blair, or some other person or persons acting on his behalf, offer to make available certain honours, in return for large sums of money, contrary to the provisions of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925? Was there, as the lawyers might say, an implied contractual obligation?”

Watson nodded. He knew there was no point in saying anything. “But now …” Holmes paused, as if for dramatic effect … “But now, we find, do we not, that our estimable friends in the London constabulary are chasing another fox entirely. Now, they are looking, as the cheaper type of newspapers might put it, for evidence …” and he paused again, as if reluctant to stoop to the vulgarity of a mere headline-writer … “for evidence of a Cover-up.”

“But Holmes, they have said nothing at all about that,” said Watson. “Precisely, my dear Watson,” replied the detective as he returned to his pipe and relit it. “That is my point.”

To be honest, I’m not even sure that Arthur Conan Doyle would have found this particular tale worth telling. No bodies, no fog-shrouded moors, not his kind of thing at all, really. On the other hand, a Prime Minister twice questioned by police; his chief fund-raiser and fixer twice arrested; one of his top Downing Street officials also arrested; two other officials questioned under caution.

No, I’m sorry, I have no idea where it will end. But I have a hunch it won’t end soon. Remember, an arrest is not the same as a charge. Indeed, so far, no one has been charged with any criminal offence – and even if they were to be, until a jury has returned a verdict, we will not know if an offence has been committed. And even if there is a trial, it’s impossible to envisage it taking place until long after Mr Blair has moved out of Downing Street. What we do know now is that deputy assistant commissioner John Yates and his team from Scotland Yard are giving every appearance of taking their task exceedingly seriously. Much more seriously, I suspect, than Downing Street officials might have wished.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic – and I draw no parallels whatsoever except a coincidence of timing – a former top aide to vice-president Dick Cheney is on trial, charged with obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements. In other words, a cover-up. (The case concerns the alleged leaking of the name of an under-cover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, whose husband, a former ambassador, had been asked to look for evidence that Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy nuclear materials in Africa. He found none, and said so, much to the apparent annoyance of the Bush administration.)

So here’s a question for you: are you appalled that senior officials, up to and perhaps including the prime minister, could even be suspected of such things (and yes, m’lud, I repeat that no charges have been brought), or are you quietly relieved that even when it involves those at the very summit of political power, the law shall be seen to take its course? As Lord Denning reminded us nearly 30 years ago: “Be you never so high, the law is above you."