"Edwina Currie has a brass neck, a silver tongue and a golden pen." Julian Critchley's carefully honed compliment to the woman who ran Margaret Thatcher a close second in Radio 4's Woman of the Year poll back in 1988 sounded a trifle hollow when he announced the first item on a recent Late Night Currie show on Radio 5 Live as another look at the "foot-and-out mouthbreak".
According to a recent interview, Edwina hasn't missed politics since she started her Sunday night talk show. "When you're elected in government, you're there to make democracy work - you tackle issues, you raise injustices. When you're on the radio chasing up the day's stories, you're doing much the same thing." So would she make any connection between the foot-and-mouth story and her own resignation over that salmonella issue? Was there not a telling link to be made between her former doubts about the safety of agricultural produce and the present crisis? But this, apparently, was an issue too far. Her strong opinions on Europe, gay rights and the food industry may have put her in the limelight, but she now recognises that she is paid to be opinionated about everything but politics. "I've had the operation - and I'm now impartial," she says.
You can understand the BBC's nervousness. When she first got the job, Austin Mitchell immediately drew attention to her links with a pressure group called the European Movement, and expressed the hope that she was not going to be "its European mouthpiece". But denying Edwina Currie her political opinions takes away whole dimensions of her brave and feisty personality. There is something deeply frustrating about sitting through a three-hour show and listening to guests hoisting a long succession of full tosses to a presenter who, in other circumstances, would have been stepping down the pitch and despatching them to the boundary.
There was one particular sequence that brought home the extent of this emasculation. Edwina, up in her Birmingham studio, had been having a pleasant but innocuous chat about bringing up children with her two guests in Broadcasting House, the "all-round cheeky entertainer Jez Edwards" and the New Statesman columnist Lauren Booth (whose qualifications for the discursive task at hand were intermittently confirmed by background gurgles from her baby daughter). Lauren had just finished telling us that she took little advice on how to bring up her child - "I trust my own instincts" - when Edwina rather suddenly introduced the guest whose ideas had presumably prompted the entire discussion. "Let's find out what Frank Furedi thinks. He's a sociologist and he claims the so-called experts have got it all wrong and parents need to abandon their anxieties. Frank, are we turning our children into mollycoddled wimps?"
And there, as live as a phone line would permit, was our Frank busily expounding the thesis about paranoid parenting that has of late enjoyed rather more publicity than the crisis in Macedonia. He seemed to be among friends. Lauren and Jez happily agreed that children were far more resilient than they were allowed to be by childcare experts, and Edwina piled in with a vivid recollection of her own tomboy childhood. "When I was a kid, I had permanent scars on my knees. I can remember sitting in school, cross-legged, listening to a story, picking the scabs off my knees."
Ah, happy consensus. But enter a fourth guest. "We're now joined by Observer journalist Martin Bright. Hi, Martin. I don't know about you, but what Frank has just been saying is music to my ears." Martin restrained himself for a moment. "He sounds very reasonable, doesn't he? I love it when academics tell us that we should take more risks. It must be the least risk-involved profession in the whole world." So far, so good. Politics is not even on the horizon. Edwina can relax. Martin, though, is warming up. "Frank is an interesting character. However, when he starts saying things about kids having to learn from pain, I wonder where he's coming from. In fact, I'm being slightly disingenuous because I know exactly where he's coming from. He's coming from an ideological position that's developed from the Revolutionary Communist Party, and it's a sort of nostalgic, unpleasant, right-wing authoritarianism that parades itself as radicalism. So there you go. That's what I think."
Good heavens. Suddenly, scabby knees and walking to school by yourself and trusting to your own instincts with children has become an ideological issue. And poor Edwina has publicly allied herself with the Revolutionary Communist Party. The national news came up just in time. Afterwards, Frank had disappeared from the show. Where had he gone? When I rang the BBC to ask, a spokesman said that Frank's line had been particularly poor. Poor enough, at least, to get Edwina off the hook.
Laurie Taylor is the radio critic of the NS