Altar mouse is reborn as Tarzan

Observations on George Carey. By Quentin Letts.

Unkind souls said that one remark sure never to be heard was: "Sir Geoffrey's in sparkling form again tonight." Then Sir Geoffrey Howe made the resignation speech that torpedoed Margaret Thatcher. Now another ancient certainty has perished: Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, has given a sizzler of a speech. Do not adjust monocles. Retrieve those marmalade spoons from the floor. That sentence was printed as intended.

Yes, Old Mother George, that altar mouse, soapy sponge, as stodgy an oatcake as has ever led the Church of England, gave a public appearance some welly. He stepped up to a lectern at a Rome seminar and made vigorous criticisms of Muslim culture. The drift of his comments was that Muslim scholarship has progressed little in the past 500 years and that its leaders need to realise that this is the 21st century, not the late medieval age.

The Daily Telegraph "splashed" the story on its front page, considering it bigger fare than Tony Blair meeting Colonel Gaddafi. The Muslim Council of Britain was horrified. From points further east came the rumble of fundamentalist fury.

Most people in this country were probably just amazed that something so arresting should have dropped from Carey's lips. Others (such as Ziauddin Sardar on page 28 of this issue) will concern themselves with the intellectual merits of the ex-prelate's thesis. But I just want to know what sort of Mickey Finn someone slipped into his chalice.

The transformation of a mumbling handwringer into this cultural Tarzan, this chest-beating crusader and disser of a rival religion, was worthy of the Incredible Hulk. One minute it's shy Bruce Banner, the next it's a green giant, rip- ping minarets off their moorings. One minute Carey is the embodiment of a tambourine-rattling Church that spouts dreary theories of ecumenical goodwill. The next moment he's on the Vatican steps giving the mullahs a kick up the Khybers.

Carey is not the only person in public life to flourish once out of office. Cabinet ministers did not come much duller than Stephen Byers, and when he resigned as transport secretary there was little discernible sense of national grief. In the past few months, however, he has made some stimulating speeches, most recently about the dangers of the "compensation culture". Derry Irvine, since being dismantled as Lord Chancellor, has awakened to the dangers of mindless constitutional change. William Hague, within days of relinquishing the Tory leadership, was a man reinvigorated. With Clare Short's return to the Commons back benches, she has been reconstituted as a magnificent, eye-bulging troublemaker.

The same goes for England cricket captains. Ian Botham was never at his best when skippering the national XI, and others, too, have lost their form on being given the top job. They become so distracted by the post-match press conference and the team politics that they forget to score runs or take wickets.

Maybe it is the support systems, the civil servants whispering: "Better to be safe than sacked, minister", or the Obadiah Slope-style chaplains murmuring: "Diplomacy, Your Grace." Maybe that is why the Careys of this world, when they were actually in the jobs where they could have made a difference, became so paralysed by caution - and why, once free of office, they go off like blown faucets.