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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 14:24 GMT
Ministers' licence to speak
Euro notes
Softening up for a euro vote
test hello test

Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Europe minister Peter Hain is regularly written up as one of the government's mavericks.

Like overseas aid minister Clare Short, he can always be relied upon to say something controversial.

Europe minister Peter Hain
Hain has Blair's backing
In fact the pair speak their minds so regularly that the shock, or gaffe, value of their comments has dramatically diminished over the years.

With Ms Short, it is usually a case of giving her honest appraisal of foreign leaders or governments and the usefulness or otherwise of aid.

It used to be cannabis that got her into trouble, as it were, but her liberal views on that subject are now almost the norm.

Gaffe prone

With Mr Hain it is Europe and the single currency that most regularly wins him the headlines.

Here is the minister for Europe apparently running around the EU telling anyone who will listen that Tony Blair wants a referendum sooner rather than later and that British entry into the euro is inevitable.

Overseas development minister Clare Short
Short routinely speaks out
It sometimes appears astonishing that these two ministers have not gaffed themselves out of their jobs.

But in fact it is not the slightest bit astonishing.

Hain and Short continue doing what they do best because they have been given a licence to speak by the prime minister.

The fact that their comments no longer attract the outrage they once did is a bonus.

The best recent examples concern Ms Short's remarks during the prime minister's tour of west Africa and now Mr Hain's Le Figaro interview.

Best friend

In Africa Tony Blair played the part of the international statesman and everybody's best friend, building a coalition of support from other countries for a new approach to aid for the continent.

Ms Short, on the other hand, went around saying that was all well and good except for the fact that the EU, and France in particular, was conspiring through protectionism to keep Africa impoverished.

It raised a few hackles but was mostly swallowed with the phrase "Oh well, that's Clare for you".

Similarly, Mr Hain's remarks are being seen as just the latest in a series of pro-European comments, while Downing Street insists the government's policy has not changed a jot.

On both counts there is ample evidence to suggest the ministers have only expressed what the prime minister probably believes but is unable or unwilling to say.

Ms Short's comments succeeded in raising an issue that, had Mr Blair touched on it, could have caused a serious diplomatic rift with Paris.

Mr Hain's interview continued what many see as a softening up process intended to prepare voters for the looming euro vote.

Another bonus

The fact that they may have ticked off Gordon Brown into the bargain is another bonus for Blair.

Tony Blair and Ghana's president Kufuor
Blair made friends in Africa
Incidentally, if recent history is anything to go by, the chancellor will now feel he has to defend his position on the euro, so we can expect a speech from him touching on that any day now.

Few people in Westminster are any longer surprised by this apparently two-faced approach by the government.

This version of the good cop, bad cop is nothing particularly new in politics, it is just that Tony Blair seems particularly fond of it.

So, far from being disciplined for their outbursts, Hain and Short are much more likely to receive discreet pats on the back from their boss.

See also:

20 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Straw backs 'euro bully' Hain
09 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Euro peer pressure mounts on Blair
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