The New Statesman Interview - Jack Straw

As he tries to secure the nation's fuel supplies, the Home Secretary finds a silver lining in recent

While I'm waiting to interview the Home Secretary his assistant brings me a cup of tea. I may have to wait some time, he quips, there could be another petrol crisis to deal with. There have indeed been reports that very afternoon of more panic buying, after suggestions that the blockades at oil refineries could be resumed. But when I am ushered in to meet Jack Straw, there is no immediate sign of emergency task forces or crisis management teams. The latest flurry of petrol panic, he admits, "shows the fragility of concern about fuel supplies". Yet he laughs off press reports that his emergency task force has not got very far at all on trying to guarantee that fuel shortages don't take the nation by the short and curlies in future. "The press are like the weather, really - you just have to take it as it comes, there's no point in complaining."

So what had his task force achieved; he certainly couldn't guarantee that a repeat of last week would not happen again, could he? "You can never guarantee that things will not go to pieces. What you should be able to do is reduce the risk of these things happening, and over the last eight days, we certainly learned a lot about how better to co-ordinate arrangements." Straw exudes a quiet confidence that the government won't be caught napping quite as deeply again. However, I point out, the real task was to decide what to do about fuel taxes, rather than try to work out how to minimise the damage of another protest. In Straw's view, you have to do both. Like Gordon Brown, who has just made it clear that he will not be bounced into any concessions by the protesters' 60-day deadline, Straw argues that you can't give in to bully-boy tactics: "We take strong account of people's concerns, but we also believe that the public are strongly attached to the rule of law . . . and would feel profoundly insecure if the government made its judgements on the basis of how disruptive particular protests have been."

But what of the view - now widespread - that the government is not listening? Straw is very quick to insist that it is. He refers me back to the Budget as a sign that the government "took account of public sentiment", and adds that "since we live in a democracy and there's going to be an election in the next 18 months, it would be daft of us not to do that".

He develops the theme: the government, he says, was listening over the summer to demands for more spending on the health service and, in his own department, on police numbers. That had been rewarded with the polls at the beginning of this month. "We had been listening, and that was brought out very clearly in the response to the comprehensive spending review. What's changed is that we have this problem about fuel supply, but we are still the same people." Just in case I've missed the point, he reiterates: "What's changed is the fuel crisis, what hasn't changed is whether we've got our ears open."

Loyally, he insists that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is not refusing to listen to the protesters. "I don't think Gordon is saying that. You don't have to look into a crystal [ball] for Gordon's approach, you can look in the book. He was aware of the concerns about fuel prices and their effect on the motoring and haulage industries back in March, which is why he made those changes in the . . . Budget." He quotes a Daily Telegraph leader of the time, which described Brown's Budget as the most car-friendly for eight years.

And how will the government reverse those recent poll trends - a couple of which have even put the Conservatives in the lead? "While I don't welcome what has happened in the last eight days, the silver lining to this is that there is a real engagement in politics. There is now a demand on the Conservatives to say what they will do, so what will emerge is where they are going to cut taxation, and where, if they cut taxation to any degree, they are going to cut public services. So that's the box they are in."

The government's box, he seems to suggest, is that the different sectors of British society have conflicting demands. "You've got to listen to what people are saying, but I know from trying to engage very directly with my constituents that some of their demands are incompatible with one another . . . people want lower taxation, but they also want a lot more money spent on essential public services." These circles have to be squared, he agrees, but "in a way in which we take the public with us".

Straw - with bodyguards of his own - is only too aware of the danger of politicians like himself becoming too remote from public opinion. "I go on listening, but it is difficult, especially when you have security, to ensure that you have chance encounters." Can he do that at all? "Yes, I can and I do, but you have to work at it."

Unlike some of the new establishment of the Labour Party, Straw was raised on a council estate by a single mother. He scoffs at the trendy liberals who dislike his tough policies on law and order. "I've been lucky that, because of my background, I have an understanding of what it feels like to live on a council estate . . . they don't understand, they haven't got a clue, not one idea."

Is he hurt by the general perception in left-wing circles that he is only marginally more liberal than that man of the night, Michael Howard? "If people want to go in for abuse, that's their business. What we're about is - yes, I'm afraid so - [being] tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." His liberal accusers seem to have got under his skin. "My irritation with them is that they haven't got an agenda. If you pin them down and say to them do you really think that people should go around trashing council estates, then they say no . . . I don't believe anybody really believes that."

It's perhaps a combination of his background and his tough approach to law and order which has ensured that Straw is definitely not one of the Labour luvvie set. Equally, his name has never been mentioned in any of the recent claims of feuding between the rival camps in Cabinet. In a sense, he is something of a loner. "I've never got involved in any of that. I just want to get on with my life, stay sane, have a life outside, go to football matches, and do the other things in my life which are private."

He comes across as immensely sane, considering the range of crises he has had to deal with over the last three years - from rising crime figures to deciding the future of General Pinochet of Chile. In one day in June, he had to make two emergency statements: one on the football violence in Belgium, the other on the grim discovery of the bodies of 58 would-be asylum-seekers in the back of a lorry in Dover. His time at the Home Office seems to have inured him to any political bolt from the blue: "I don't have sleepless nights. I sleep anywhere, any time. I think you should always have reserves of sleep in your locker . . . The only thing certain in life is that there will be another crisis to wake you up, but you don't know when." He is well aware that he - and this government - will be judged not only on how they carry out the medium- and long-term programmes they have set, but also how these unexpected events are handled. He reacted to the fuel crisis, which had taken them all by surprise, by "getting out of bed, realising we had a job to do and we'd better get on and do it".

We turn to his future. Where would he like to go next? "Any job that is offered to me by the Prime Minister," he enunciates slowly. Maybe prime minister one day - but does he have a big enough ego for that job? "I don't want to go down that track. I'm me. Other people have got to judge my approach to politics."

I ask how he would define "Strawism". He thinks for a moment, then decides it's "Blairism with an old Labour tinge". But isn't that Brownism? Straw is not going to be drawn into that one, either. "There isn't a cigarette paper between what they want to do. Their language is different, and that's something we ought to celebrate. My language is different, we all have different contributions to make, we're not all clones of each other." He has no time for the factionalism that has dogged new Labour: "It's absurd that in a great political party there should not be space for people to go towards the same direction in a different way. If you want to use a musical analogy, it's the same score, different instruments."

But back to his future. It has been suggested that the Treasury or the Foreign Office are obvious possibilities for him after the election; another rumour doing the rounds in Whitehall is that he might do a straight swap with David Blunkett and return to education, a portfolio he held in opposition. The only clue he will give as to his preferences is to say that he has enjoyed the European dimension of his job. "I just hadn't anticipated this. Much more of this job is involved with co-operation and decision-making with other European Union interior ministers. I'm now leading a lot of that work." Whether or not he has his sights set on the Foreign Office, he won't say. "Parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, with all due regard to the current holder of that office, I would say no to," is as far as he will go. And he says, decisively, "I like this job, I'd be very happy to stay here. I love this job." Despite the amount of crisis management he's engaged in, it is quite clear that he does.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place