The Journal of Lynton Charles, Fiduciary Secretary to the Treasury

Monday There are some jobs that nobody ought to want - finance minister for Chad, director of education for Hackney, personal assistant to Ann Widdecombe, that kind of thing. Yet there never seems to be a lack of people wanting to do them. So right now, there's not one, but three blokes desperate for the title of chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Why? Who would want to be the liaison point between MPs and the government? You hear every whinge going, and yet are completely powerless to do anything about them, even if you wanted to (which - if you've half a brain - you probably don't).

I mean, everyone knows better than you. Go to Mr Brown and say, "MPs think you should give shitloads of cash to pensioners", and he'll tell you that he's an MP too and that he doesn't think any such thing, and none of his MP friends think any such thing, and he has only received one constituent's letter on the subject, and that was from a man in an institution for the criminally insane. And besides (Mr Brown will continue), if the chairman of the PLP was doing his job properly, he would be convincing MPs of the total correctness of the government's case concerning the economy over the long term. Which was put together after a strategic planning period spanning half a decade in opposition and three years in government.

Back you go to Alf Bumm, loyal member for Gasworks North, carrying Mr Brown's message. Alf's problem is that, although he has an IQ only slightly higher than the contents of the canal that runs unfragrantly through his constituency, he fundamentally believes that - were merit the real criterion - he would himself now be in the government. That he isn't is a sign of the regrettable lack of insight into the mood of the heartlands shown by the government. A government that, according to Alf, is too Islingtonocentric.

Fail with Mr Brown and - in Alf's eyes - it's partly your fault. Fail to get Alf's support, and Mr Brown has you down in his Nasty Book as a waste of space.

So who would want a job like that? Well, the bowed-down incumbent Clive Soley, A Clarke (disappointed former minister) and the champion of the back benches, the man who always speaks his mind (and is therefore completely unreliable and self-centred), Alan O'Connor, that's who. And, at M's insistence, we ministers are now ordered to get discreetly into the tearooms and canvass sotto voce for poor old Clive.

This afternoon, ever obedient, off I go. And am doing sterling work among a gaggle of Midlanders, none of whom are ex-ministers (which makes the task much easier) when we are joined - uninvited - by Dede Monk. Dede is the MP for Blasted Heath Central. A large woman of West Indian origin, Dede speaks in a soft, almost childish voice, as though perpetually reasoning with a five-year-old. I have never, ever heard her say one positive word about the government. In fact, one realises that Dede would far rather the Tories were in power.

"Lynton," she coos, "how lovely and how unexpected to see you here, among the masses. And you must be soooo busy! Now let me guess! You're not here, are you, to listen to our minor problems? Matters of state must have despatched you hence. Perhaps you'd like us to vote for Clive Soley? Am I getting warm? Oh, but how disappointing for you! You see, we rather feel it's time for a change. Tough luck!"

I am unwise enough to lose my temper. And to tell Dede that her connection with Labour is so tenuous that I thought she'd joined another party. She smiles, glutinously. "Oh dear! Lynton, you just went on to my shit-list. Ask yourself, who gets on radio and TV more - you or me? Not only can I do you some serious damage, but I most certainly will. Toodle-oo."


This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.