I bumped into Clare Short the night before our scheduled interview. We were by chance among 50 or so guests at the home of Norma Percy, the distinguished documentary-maker, for a viewing party for her latest piece of history-making, The Fall of Milosevic, on 12 January. Only a few hours earlier, Short had popped up on television to warn Tony Blair not to embark on an Iraqi adventure without full UN authorisation. The International Development Secretary was hero of the hour at this most liberal of north London soirees.
As those assembled watched Percy's film, they cheered each piece of self-justification from Bill Clinton; they laughed sympathetically as Jacques Chirac provided a charmingly Gallic interpretation of his role in Kosovo. When a nervous Blair appeared to explain, without a hint of hubris, how he convinced Clinton that without the threat of ground troops Nato would never win, he received hoots of derision. Short, wedged in between two other women on the sofa, sat stony-faced.
"I still think Kosovo was a just war," she told me next morning at her office. "War is always ugly but sometimes it's better than not taking action. I was irritated by all the tittering. People shouldn't be deferential to their leaders, but a lot of those people wanted to sneer. They saw it through the lens of Iraq." She then had a pop at the likes of Harold Pinter, Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky who have "ended up being so anti-American and anti-Nato" they have lost the ability to discriminate between when to commit to war and when not.
Think whatever you like about Clare Short - and several of her cabinet colleagues have had it with her moralising tones - her views are not as one-dimensional as the headlines suggest. This is a woman who quit Labour's front bench ten years ago in protest at the first Gulf war. And yet of the three military interventions to date under General Blair, she supported two passionately - Kosovo and Sierra Leone - and came along with the third, Afghanistan, once the Americans began to stress the humanitarian and nation-building part.
"At times you need to use what the Continentals call the state monopoly of violence to stop disorder and cruelty and terror," she says. Christian teaching on war is, she adds, very similar to Islamic teaching. So what are her criteria? "It must be just. There must be no other way. It must be proportionate. And it must be winnable."
With that in mind, I ask Short to name a single cabinet colleague who is enthusiastic to fight a war against Iraq. She can't think of one. She offers this: "There are no Rumsfelds in the UK government. I haven't heard anyone talk like that. Remember the rhetoric of last summer [when the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were talking of ignoring the UN]? It was terrifying."
She feels so confident in her position politically and morally that she will not budge from what she regards as the mainstream of public opinion. "I've had a lot of conversations with Tony. I'm not trying to portray myself, nor is it the case that I'm out of tune with the Prime Minister, but I think the country is very troubled and the country is entitled to be part of the answer.
"It's very, very clear that the overwhelming bulk of the Labour Party is holding together around going with the UN process," she says. "The debate at conference was very impressive." Impressive is not the word the party hierarchy used at the time, as it ensured that critics of the government line were kept away from the rostrum as much as possible.
Short is adamant about the need for Britain and the US to go back to the UN Security Council for a second resolution authorising military action in the event of a "material breach" by Saddam. But she goes further: "Of course I'm in favour of a second resolution, but I don't think we should aim for just that. There's a theoretical second resolution that could then authorise almost anything. It's much more about the integrity of the process: you get the weapons inspectors, you let them have the time, you give them the information, take the report seriously but absolutely be willing to back up the authority of the UN."
That is her bottom line. The inspectors' work must not be curtailed and a second UN resolution must be passed. Again and again she says that this represents the government's position. The trouble is - it isn't. Or at least, it isn't the Prime Minister's. He made clear at his monthly news conference on 13 January that although he wanted Hans Blix and the other inspectors to have "time and space" and although he favoured a second resolution, if any country put an "unreasonable or unilateral" block on such a resolution "we can't be in a position where we are confined in that way".
Short sees her role like this: she is tugging at Blair's ankles, while Blair is tugging at George Bush's. She hopes she - and others in government like her - is acting as a restraining influence on a Prime Minister who in turn is reining in the hawks around the president.
As long as it stays like that, everything will be fine. But what about the scenario of Bush going along with the hawks and attacking Iraq before conclusive proof is provided by Blix, or before a second resolution is secured at the UN? Few people doubt that Blair would feel impelled to back him, however reluctantly. I ask Short if her implied threat last March to resign, when she talked of "blind military action", still stands? She says she doesn't like "what ifs" and that such "very undesirable developments" will not come to pass. So she will stay, come what may, and fight her corner within the cabinet? "You can't say 'whatever happens' - I mean I expect the government to remain united, to be on the UN route, whatever the difficulties, to stand together - on all issues I expect to remain a member of the government. I have to broadly agree with what the government's doing." Going to war without a fresh UN mandate would create mayhem. She would go and take others with her.
And what of her boss? "Tony Blair speaks for himself, obviously," she says. "It's not true that the Labour Party is divided. The government, the cabinet, the party, and I think the country, are all in tune in wanting to keep together, to do it multilaterally and to reinforce the UN. Actually, so is American public opinion."
She is clear, however, about the Iraqi president: "Saddam Hussein needs to know that it's not going away, and much the best thing would be for him to co-operate with the inspectorate and expose the chemical and biological weapons he has. And by the way I know a lot of people are saying, 'Has he got any?' The evidence that there are, if not nuclear, then chemical and biological weapons, is overwhelming. So the best outcome is his accepting that this time the UN process is invincible, it's not going to stop, and the way not to have conflict is to co-operate with the UN inspectors and let them dismantle."
Why is it, I wonder, so many British voters have so much trouble liking George Dubbya? The list rolls off her tongue: "Kyoto, the noises out of the US over the summer, the biological weapons convention, the people who said before Afghanistan they don't do nation-building, the farms bill, the action on steel . . ." She believes the Americans have changed since then and cites the $5bn Bush assigned for poverty reduction in the developing world - an amount Bill Clinton never came up with.
I ask her whether Blair was right, in his speech to British ambassadors early this month, to cite maintaining Britain's friendship with the United States as our top foreign policy goal. "No," she replies instinctively. We should remain close, but we should emphasise equally strongly our role in the EU, the UN, the Commonwealth, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the IMF. International institutions are, she believes, the bedrock of global stability. Britain should use its "distinctive" position as a "convinced multilateralist" to stave off danger and chaos. What about Blair's poodle tag? "The country would be more comfortable and there would be less cartoons if we could speak up more clearly."
Short insists that both internationally and domestically, this government has a good story to tell, if only it were more courageous about telling it. "I'm proud of the record," she says, mentioning full employment, the Working Families Tax Credit, improvement in schools, investment in health and the social agenda of greater equality for women, ethnic minorities and gays. Rather than extolling the achievements, most of the message has been short-termist and defensive. "Our government is creating a Labour country without telling the story." Better to have got the substance right than the spin, but what of her original warning, to the NS back in 1996, about spin and the people in the dark? "'Told you so' is not attractive. I was saying it's dangerous and it's not a good way to do politics. I think it's proved not to be a good way to do politics."
The spin machine has been the author of many of the government's misfortunes. But Short accepts the malaise is global. "Politics is in a grumpy, grouchy mood all over the world." She does not share the concern of many of her colleagues in their antagonism towards the press. "The role of the media is to scrutinise, but it's not doing so on the big questions. Instead, while the world has been facing enormous questions, we've had the vilification of Cherie."
The government, for its part, has to "learn how to have honest and mutually respectful debate in cabinet and parliament". She believes the tide is turning. Still, when it comes to speaking out, even though others may agree with her privately, hers usually remains a lone voice.
It is one of those facts that are the preserve of political anoraks, but only four members of the cabinet have stayed in the same job since 1997: Blair, Gordon Brown, Lord Irvine (the Lord Chancellor) - and Short. She is given special licence to speak out, partly as a lightning conductor and partly because of her standing in her party. But as Mo Mowlam found out, no one is indispensable.
Short says she is not disloyal; she believes in collective responsibility and is not trying to "mouth off and make other people uncomfortable". She accepts that she has annoyed colleagues, most recently John Prescott, over remarks she has made. "I'm not trying to be the conscience of the government. I'm sure that annoys the hell out of everybody. But I can't help it. I've been like this since I was three years old. I can't toe the line and nod at things that I just can't agree with."