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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 7 April, 1999, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
The frank Ms Short
clare short
Clare Short: "It's the best and most important job in government"
She's a 53-year-old widowed grandma, whose throaty Midland utterances have spin doctors reaching - metaphorically - for the angina tablets.

Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short is a woman known first and foremost for her uncompromising frankness. In the nicest possible way, she even looks blunt.

It is a quality that has endeared her to the public, and earnestly underscored her bullish calls for action over the plight of Kosovan refugees.

But it is also a quality that has made her the rogue element within Labour, frequently ruffling her party's meticulous efforts to present a perfectly pre-wrapped package, glossed with sound bites and slogans.

samantha fox
Page 3 girls how Ms Short would prefer them - with clothes on
It is rumoured that her comments about the "dark forces" within Labour - a barely veiled reference to Peter Mandelson - led to the Tories' demon-eyed election poster campaign.

And it is no secret that she and Tony Blair are like oil and water. She supported Margaret Beckett in the leadership race.

Time and again, the woman who has been described by different interviewers as looking like a games teacher, has been summonsed to the office of the "headmaster" for stern talkings-to and dressings down.

MP for Ladywood in Birmingham since 1983 - before which she was a civil servant - Clare Short's political career has always been colourful and high profile.

Her views are controversial in a way which excites the tabloid press and hands them ready-crafted column inches on a plate.

birmingham
Birmingham: Centre of her universe
The Sun's "lovelies" bore the brunt of her wrath during the 1980s, when she failed on two occasions to get a parliamentary bill passed banning the exposure of bare breasts on page 3.

From 1985-88 she was a shadow spokeswoman on employment, then from 1989-91 on social security and then the environment in 1992.

During this period she twice resigned her role in public protest over Labour policy. In 1988 her walk-out was prompted by the party's support of the Prevention of Terrorism Act - and its backing of the Gulf War policy in 1991 also saw her reaching for her marching boots.

In 1995 she came back to the fore as shadow transport secretary. She told reporters she had made a pretty good job of the role, devising new policy in her first six months.

But her "gaffes" - a word she professes to detest, but one that ought to have been her middle name at this stage - had been too many.

To the irritation of her party, she shared her views that people who earned more should pay more tax.

new labour new danger
"Dark forces" at work
Another faux pas saw her telling reporters she thought the debate on the decriminalisation of cannabis should be re-opened.

And while the press seized on her every, copy-selling word, she annoyed broadcast reporters by slurring through one interview on the BBC's Today programme (she later explained that she'd overslept) and walking out of another when she was questioned on a London Tube strike.

She later said of the interviewer: "Who does he think he is, little cleverdick?"

Then, despite coming third in Labour's National Executive vote in July 1996, she was hauled back into the headmasters office, stripped of her prefect's badge, and demoted to the overseas development portfolio.

She raged against "dirty fixers" - but she had given them enough rope to hang her with.

Even so, Ms Short was to steal the limelight with a heart-warmingly human tale worthy of Hollywood.

montserrat
Montserrat: Islanders got short shrift
It was already known that she had been briefly married as a teenager, then had married for a second time, amid some scandal, to the MP Alex Lyon. Mr Lyon had left his wife and children to set up home with her.

By the late 1980s, Lyon had developed Alzheimer's disease, and was nursed by his wife in their South London home for five years before she placed him in the care home where he died.

But it was not widely known that the Ladywood MP had given a baby up for adoption in the mid-'60s.

Just over 31 years after the event, her son decided to trace his birth mother - Ms Short having notified the adoption agency that she wanted to be contacted if ever her child desired it.

In a burlesque twist, a 31-year-old Toby Graham, staunch Tory and city slicker found himself with Clare Short as a mother.

What the tabloids had failed to pick up on was that while reading political science at Keele University in North Staffordshire, Ms Short had become pregnant.

clare short and toby graham
Reunited: Mother and son
She and the baby's father married and moved to Leeds to start a new life, but six weeks after the child's birth, she handed him over for adoption.

Mother and son were reunited, and Ms Short discovered she was a grandmother.

Her candid and off-the-cuff comments, meanwhile, continued to flow.

To the fury of major coffee companies, she gave a personal endorsement to Café Direct, a product which aims to offer fair pay and conditions for its workers in the developing world. Kenco and Nescafé hit the roof.

And in perhaps an ill-thought-out move, she stood on Brighton beach, decked out in flak jacket and mine clearance equipment in the style of Diana, Princess of Wales. The papers slated her - but she readily admits to not reading them anyway, preferring the services of a closely edited cuttings service.

She was accused of comparing Ulster Unionists to the Ku Klux Klan, said Bill Clinton wasn't fit to be president - and admitted on live TV that she "didn't bother" lobbying on behalf of British business during an official visit to China.

In her most notorious statement to date, she accused the inhabitants of the volcano-ravaged island Montserrat of making unreasonable demands. "They will be wanting golden elephants next," she famously, if less than diplomatically, exclaimed.

golden elephant
"They'll be wanting golden elephants next"
She sees her current role, however, as "a joy". She told the Radio Times: "I actually think it's the best job in government and the most important.

"The whole issue of international solidarity and justice for everybody in the world has always been a core theme of my politics and of my life.

"Now it's time to mobilise the political will to implement what the world has already agreed upon - the reduction of absolute poverty by half by 2015. It's a moral and environmental imperative."

And while she's not putting the world at whole to rights (namely, at the weekends) she goes to stay with her mum in Handsworth, Birmingham - describing the city as the "centre of the universe" - and devotes her time to her constituents.

She says: "Without my job I would be lost, of course. It is the focus of my existence."

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05 Apr 99 | Politics
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