Show Hide image

Lord Kagan, Lord Snooty and a romantic Lady

I didn't go to the Queen's Speech, partly because I don't look good in ermine drag...

I returned from Honfleur full of fresh mussels and white wine for the new Lords session. That pretty Norman town is sparkling because it collects the rubbish every day except Sunday. When I asked the mairie why so frequently, the puzzled official answered: "Doesn't everybody?" I was tempted to reply, if my French had stretched to it: "Not in third-world Berkshire."

I didn't go to the Queen's Speech, partly because I don't look good in ermine drag. Also because when I first joined the House in 1985 I dutifully dressed up and was seated for three hours next to Lord Joe Kagan, the menacing friend of Lady Falkender who was jailed for tax evasion. I later explained to a House official that I had spent some of my life trying to avoid jail and jailbirds and did not expect the Lords to bring me into such close contact. I haven't been to the Queen's Speech since.

Our legislative programme seems thin, with not much political spice. Harold Wilson, and especially Jim Callaghan, always looked at the draft Speech and asked me, "Where is the politics [meaning votes] in all this?" I presume that Gordon feels that dealing with the financial and economic crisis will be the main agenda ahead. He has performed impressively so far in handling our greedy and irresponsible bankers (Barclays' dodgy loans alone are nearly double the whole government borrowing for next year. The Tory claim that it is all Brown's fault is ludicrous). But the imminent economic slump and rising unemployment will present a tougher challenge and might point to an election before it fully bites.

On this subject, Alastair Darling's mini-Budget was disappointing: £12bn was wasted on tiny VAT cuts that nobody notices with the stores already offering cuts of 20-30 per cent. Much better to have taken three million low-paid completely out of tax by raising the threshold. They would certainly have noticed and spent every penny. The explanation for this ineptitude is familiar to anyone who has worked in Whitehall - "departmental convenience". Direct tax cuts, as well as being more difficult to reverse, would have required a finance bill, with all that bother (though I cannot imagine the Tories would oppose tax cuts to the low-paid). VAT cuts could be done quickly by order the following Monday - and can be reversed as quickly. The Treasury preferred the latter, but the Chancellor should have overruled officials and introduced some political spice.

Hugo Young, in his recently published Papers, refers to Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's combative press secretary, as starting his career as "a lighterman or some such trade". That may have been the lofty view of an Ampleforth-educated product of Yorkshire steelmasters. I admired Hugo for his fine writing and integrity. But where I came from in the Labour movement, Thames boatmen were higher up the moral pecking order than journalists. Joe called him "Lord Snooty".

A last thought on the Home Office leaks pantomime and the police heavy-handedness in sending in a battalion of anti-terror troops and, as too often these days, arresting when initially they needed only to interview the hapless Damian Green. I am reminded that a senior detective inspector from Maidenhead once explained to me: "You have to understand that the root of this country's law and order problem is that our police are a lot thicker than the villains." There has been thickness on all sides in this episode. Leaks will always happen - and may turn out to be in the public interest. Journalists will always feed on them and newspapers always commercially exploit them, neither ever declaring a self-interest when attacking government efforts to control them. But systematic leaking, whether for party, ideological or commercial reasons, is a threat to good administration, as David Cameron would discover should he ever grow into long trousers and enter No 10.

I travelled nervously on the Tube to the East End on Monday to address Professor Peter Hennessy's lively Mile End Group about my Downing Street Diaries. Peter is a rare treasure in academe, without envy or pettiness, who understands Whitehall completely and who has made Queen Mary College the centre of studies in British 20th-century politics and government (now the LSE has shamefully virtually abandoned that field). He would make an excellent People's Peer.

Less than a fortnight to go and, as usual, I suffer my annual panic. The romantic Lady wants and deserves something that has required months of thought. I tried an auction house this week, but as always was outbid by some City gent who had spotted the same pretty pendant and is wealthier and even more panicked than I. Don't say: "Crisis, what crisis?" This may lead to a Winter of Discontent.

Volume two of Lord Donoughue's "Downing Street Diaries" - "With James Callaghan in No 10" - is published by Jonathan Cape (£30)


This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech