Why August was free of gaffes

Observations on politics

It was almost like old times on page two of the Sunday Telegraph last weekend. "Blair is urged to sack 'disastrous' party chairman", ran the headline. Underneath were 15 paragraphs of elegant bile of a sort not regularly seen since Peter Mandelson was last active.

"The Prime Minister," we learned via unidentified sources, "is under intense pressure to sack Charles Clarke, the Labour Party chairman, after senior Downing Street figures branded him an 'absolute disaster'."

Something similar ran in the Daily Mirror and the Mail on Sunday.

What was odd about this political gossip was not that it should be published. Off-the-record dumpings and terrace indiscretions are routine page-fillers for Sunday newspapers.

Nor should we be surprised to see the name of the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, suggested by the Sunday Telegraph as Clarke's replacement. Everyone knows that Jowell is as lightweight as a Boat Race cox, but hatchet jobs of this sort always punt some complete loser for the "vacancy". It discredits the incumbent even more and allows real contenders to present clean palms.

It is unusual that there has been so little such fare this August. There has been remarkably little Labour spinning.

The potentially awkward fallout from the Amicus leadership election has so far come to nothing. Foreign policy rows in the cabinet have been muted. There was a minor kerfuffle over Michael Meacher's plane ticket to South Africa for the save-the-world summit, but that was soon resolved.

August has been less happy for the opposition parties. Following the damp-kneed excitement of Charlie Kennedy's wedding, the Lib Dems have been invisible. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been busy stabbing each other with the butter knives: endless squabbles on the Today programme with the Tebbit tendency and the Maudites.

So why this sudden flurry of anti-Clarke activity? Kremlinologists note that the Sunday Telegraph's story was written not by its steady political editor, Colin Brown, but by a home affairs correspondent. That mention of "senior Downing Street figures" was possibly made at one remove. Colleagues on rival newspapers wonder if the immediate source was a disgruntled trade unionist.

Labour's gaffe-free August is greatly to the party chairman's credit - proof that Clarke is not a bad operator. Many journalists, and MPs, are scared of him, particularly when he has had a couple of half-pints of claret and is in one of his "let me tell you bluntly" moods. You can call Charles Clarke plenty of things, but "absolute disaster" is not one of them.