NS Interview - Jack Straw

''Tony will go at a time of his own choosing and it won't be soon . . . He's got a great deal more t

Jack Straw is heading north to his Blackburn constituency while eating a railway fry-up. This is a rare indulgence. On normal days breakfast is porridge, which he cooks himself. Porridge sounds a very Straw-like dish. Its qualities - safe, solid, but never fairly to be seen as stodgy - are also those that have helped keep the Foreign Secretary at the top of British politics for so long.

So, his critics might say, is an ability to blow with the prevailing wind. Successive tremors rock the Blair government. David Blunkett's second resignation, cabinet infighting over smoking and trouble on terror legislation have provoked suspicions that the Prime Minister is suffering the authority deficit that felled John Major. Naturally, Straw has an alternative explanation.

"It doesn't smell like that to me. The disintegration of the Major government was catastrophic; very different from the turbulence we've faced. OK, it's been a difficult ten days. [Among] Tony's remarkable characteristics are his focus and ability to bounce back. I saw him yesterday morning and I was struck by that again . . . That's not to say these aren't ten days that one could have done without."

Specifically, he is saddened by Blunkett's political demise. "I feel very bad about David going. It's a real Greek tragedy. For sure he made mistakes, but politics is a terrible snake-pit. I feel very sorry for him. It is tragic to see a guy with great talent running into difficulties." In the "snake-pit" of Westminster, Blunkett could be as sinuous as the rest. Among the disobliging comments he made to his biographer was the view that Straw left the Home Office in "a giant mess".

"None of us was desperately happy," he says. "He [Blunkett] knew it was a big mistake to have operated in that way. We're all working under pressure and politics is a strange combination of collaboration, comradeship and competitiveness."

Is Straw competitive? Not, it appears, to the point of wishing for Blair to implode. "Tony is going to stay for as long as he wants in this parliament," he says. "He will go at a time of his own choosing and it won't be soon. He thinks, and I support him, that he's got a great deal more to do, particularly on public service reforms. I'm absolutely clear about that. I think he'll surprise everybody by his determination to see these through."

Was that what Blair told him when they met the day before? "Yes. But I also know the guy pretty well." The improvement in schools and the NHS in Straw's own constituency "would not have happened but for Tony. It's just true. It obviously took Gordon, too, but the evangelical drive to deliver the best for everybody is what makes him a brilliant prime minister, in my view."

This extravagant tribute might seem Janus-faced to those who suspected that Straw was actually hoping for a quick handover to Gordon Brown. Does he think his accession inevitable? "That is not something I'm going to speculate on. There's no vacancy and I don't think there will be for quite a long time. I've got very great admiration for Gordon and, as with Tony, we share a great deal of common ground." I ask whether Straw would rule himself out as a future prime minister. Not entirely, it seems. "In current circumstances, yes. I've often said a politician who claims he doesn't want the top job is probably not being as frank as he should. But . . . it's not something I hanker after."

Wherever Straw's loyalties lie, it does seem Pollyanna-like of him to be so sure, as administrations reach breaking point on both sides of the Atlantic, that all is going swimmingly well. He allows, in the only hint of strife, that he is furious about the leaks on the smoking row in cabinet. "You can't actually run effective government if there is that kind of leaking," he says. Presumably the source was one of his closest colleagues. "Sure. I'm not certain who, but I have an idea. I don't think it's a precursor [of insurrection]. Smoking is an ideological issue, like hunting, where some people have fantastic passions, and some don't. On both issues I am in the latter category."

Straw's own preoccupations include Iran. Shortly before our interview, President Ahmadinejad stepped up the threatening noises over the country's nuclear programme and sacked his liberal ambassadors, the London envoy among them. So what happens now? Straw sounds unusually hesitant. "Um. If you're asking me if there's going to be military action, then there won't be, in my view. I can't say precisely what is going to happen."

But he previously ruled out any attack as "inconceivable". Is that still his position? "I think so," he says, which is much more equivocal. "I understand why people are anxious about this, not least because of what happened in Iraq, but it's not on anyone's agenda. Condi Rice has made that clear."

Can Straw be sure that a beleaguered George Bush will not unleash some limited strike? "It's for the American president to say what is or is not conceivable for them, all right? And it just happens to be a matter of doctrine that no US president ever takes any options formally off the table." So either Straw believes we are closer to military action, or he has read the Downing Street runes and decided to move closer to Blair's more belligerent stance.

On the question of Britain's own nuclear deterrent, he denies that replacing Trident sets a poor example on proliferation. "I also believe disarming could potentially weaken the position of the UK." So he encouraged replacing Trident? "I didn't encourage it. I'm sorry that we live in this world, but I support the replacement of Trident."

We move on to Syria, now the subject of a UN Security Council resolution, passed after suspicions that Damascus was involved in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. "I think the Syrians got a shock, particularly when they saw it was a very tough resolution with very clear obligations. They need to shape up, otherwise the Security Council will have to consider . . . sanctions." The "further consequences" that may ensue are not military ones, he stresses.

But this time he declines to call war inconceivable. "I used that word in a specific context, in respect of Iran. With Syria, it's not on the agenda." Is he worried, having watched the build-up to war in Iraq? "Well, of course I worry about that. Given the international trauma of Iraq, people's anxieties are that there will be that inexorable march to war for Iran or Syria."

Will Iraq be peaceful even in ten years' time? He sounds uncertain. "I think so, is the answer. You can't be absolutely confident, but I think so." This sounds a feeble response from such a willing prosecutor of war. Does Straw accept that, knowing how thin the planning for the succession to Saddam Hussein was, he failed to impress enough doubts on Blair? Straw dismisses the charge, subsequently made by Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington in the lead-up to war, that Britain never exerted the leverage it could have in demanding proper assurances from Bush as a precondition for backing war.

"Well, thank you for making me sound the fount of wisdom. But, wise or not, I fully supported military action. I've recycled [that support] loads and loads of times in my head, as I hope anybody would. I've thought about what I knew then and what I know now. I would have come to the same conclusion. The implementation [of plans] after the military action was not as satisfactory as it should have been. More preparation should have been put in, with the benefit of hindsight. None of us thought the insurgency would be that ruthless, but there we are."

Meyer also accuses Straw of personally blocking publication of the memoir of the former UN ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock - a charge that Straw's office later declined to answer, pointing to a formal process for scrutinising texts. He does not deny, as strongly as Blair has done, that there is a link between the war and terror in Britain. "There isn't any doubt that terrorists use Iraq as an excuse, but they would be using something else if Iraq wasn't there . . . And in any event, we've got to defeat it."

But the disastrous recent history of Iraq has not left Straw repentant or troubled. On the contrary, he seems a man with no care in the world. The successful outcome of the Turkish accession talks pleased him, and even the prospect of more arid wrangling over the EU budget appears to suit him better than his previous post.

"Being home secretary is absolutely relentless. It's all about social control. You're dealing with people who won't behave and accept norms. And with all the people who look after the people who won't behave, and some of them won't behave either." Nor does he regret that he now does fewer interviews for the Today programme, for which he is always shaved, suited and (latterly) wearing the powerful bifocal contact lenses that he calls "a liberation". Such preparation, in his own opinion, sharpens him for the fray. Others might think it merely makes him more opaque.

One challenger who did ruffle his composure was Walter Wolfgang, his party conference heckler in Brighton, who was hustled off the premises and cautioned under anti-terror laws. Straw, however, considers him a buddy. "If I'd realised it was old Walter, I'd have invited him to the microphone. I've known him for years. I think I first met him on the Aldermaston marches. Afterwards I was just appalled. I rang him up." What did Wolfgang say? "Er, I said I was really, really sorry. I can't remember exactly what he said in reply." So perhaps the rapport was not as close as Straw imagines. Still, his newer friends have proved less volatile. Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, became more than just an ally. "We saw the Powells on holiday a couple of times. I had a very close relationship with Colin, and still do."

Recently, Condoleezza Rice, Powell's successor, invited him to see her birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama. Straw, enthralled by their tour, has issued a return invitation, though not to the Essex council flats where he grew up. Instead, she will visit Blackburn, whose large Muslim population offers lessons on belonging. I ask if Straw thinks the French riots could ever happen here, and he says: "You can never say never, but I think we are further ahead in terms of integration and mutual respect."

On Rice, he is an ardent fan. "She is terrific," he says, and I am reminded of the pride with which Robin Cook, as foreign secretary, once spoke of his bond with another female opposite number, Madeleine Albright. I ask whether it has affected Straw to serve in a government shadowed by mortality. Cook died at 59, the same age as Straw. "He was a very close friend, despite our arguments over Iraq. He used to quip that we had a non-aggression pact. But we were very, very careful with each other. He knew that I had not coveted this job, though I was delighted to do it."

The fried breakfast has long since been cleared away but Straw has no inclination to turn to his red box, preferring to talk about political trust, civil liberties and his exhaustive fitness regime ("I never travel without my gym kit"). He does seem almost eerily relaxed given the hellish legacy of the Iraq war and the government's travails. Any self-doubt seems to have slithered off Jack Straw, leaving him curiously confident. "The more you do, the better you get," he says. But I wonder whether Straw has other reasons to be so sanguine. He has put his money on Blair toughing it out. But if he is wrong he has his links to Brown. Heads or tails, Jack Straw may calculate that he will not be the loser.