Paul Routledge

The general view at Westminster is that Jack Straw, the most authoritarian home secretary since Henry Brooke, has taken a serious hit in his fight with the newspapers over the Lawrence inquiry report. To a great many MPs, his failed injunction looks panicky. And he has infuriated Tony Blair, who had no notice of Operation Sunday Telegraph. Blair is angry because he doesn't want to sack the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon. He's had to sack too many high-profile people lately. "Have-a-go Jack" fears an ethnic backlash if Condon stays in post, but doesn't want to upset Blair.

One way and another it is a classic new Labour mess, compounded by Straw's absurd attempt to grovel before the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, insisting that this was a serious matter, unlike the "run of the mill" leaks of government policy long before parliament is told. That's precisely what upsets Betty, so it was not surprising that she humiliated the Home Secretary by demanding a public apology to - of all people - Sir Norman Fowler.

Jack doesn't play the leaking game. Not unless you count his recent lunch with Max Hastings, the editor of the Evening Standard, who left the table with a doggy-bag of exclusives.

Straw's political adviser, the affable Ed Owen, was initially suspected by some political correspondents of being the leak to the Sunday Telegraph, perhaps on the grounds that he is on the side of the underdog. He does support Manchester City. But the Home Office investigation into the leak has exonerated the department. Attention has now turned to the team assisting Sir William Macpherson.

Jack, by the way, is fond of boasting that he can beat all but one of his armed private detectives in a sprint after the end of his jog in a local park. I have to tell him that their huffing and puffing is phoney. They allow him to win.

What do the dramatis personae in the Lawrence affair have in common? Links with Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. Imran Khan, the family's solicitor, was a member of the SLP executive, I hear, and is to be the party's candidate for a London constituency in Euro-elections in June. Michael Mansfield, the family's QC and pal of Scargill, wrote the party constitution. And Neville Lawrence, who has carried the family campaign far and wide, has appeared at SLP meetings in south London.

So, to the Gran Paradiso for lunch with Sir Richard Needham, the former Northern Ireland minister, whose memoirs, Battling for Peace, are a sellout (if that's the right word) in Ulster bookshops. He was on excellent form, despite being off the sherbet for February. Except Sundays. Dimly, we became aware that a supercilious braying at the corner table emanated from Sir Richard Wilson, the cabinet secretary. Ol' Jug-Ears was busily impressing a lady, but on his way out he stopped by to say hello to the other Sir Richard. When he'd gone, Needham confided that Wilson had threatened to have him locked up for disclosing something quite innocuous about GCHQ. Mrs Thatcher's last great Keynesian minister stood his ground, altering only one word, I'm glad to say.

This obsession with secrecy over the work of GCHQ, even under Tony Blair's allegedly open government, doesn't surprise me. If the British public knew a fraction of what they get up to, there would be an outcry. Some years ago, when I was at the Observer, a would-be defector from the spy station approached us. He wanted tens of thousands to spill the beans. We pointed out that it was illegal to suborn a person in his position. Before we lost him, Mr Wycombe (we used to meet in High Wycombe) showed us transcripts of international telex and phone traffic from a number of charities in Britain. I have no doubt that Big Brother is still watching them.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror". His biography of Peter Mandelson is available from the "NS" at the special price of £16.99 (inc p&p); his "Gordon Brown" at £12.99; or £25 for both. Ring 0800 7318496

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?