By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]
Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.
SINCE THE advent of 24-hour television news channels, those of us who are addicted to news and current affairs keep a permanent eye on latest events.
Sometimes, nothing really significant happens for hours on end, then, as in two remarkable days recently, three big stories come at once – rather like the proverbial buses.
The UK’s top policeman is forced out of office, a maverick politician who we all thought was safely buried away in Brussels, is called back into the front line, and, across the water, the rookie Republican vice-presidential candidate faced her first TV inquisition.
Much of the British media had been conducting a vendetta against Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, since he made a series of high profile blunders, which put his judgement in serious doubt. An Oxford graduate, he had joined The Met in 1974, rising quickly through the ranks and was soon recognised as a reformer – the man needed to lead the London force into a new politically correct era.
In 1999, he was appointed Deputy Commissioner, under the highly popular ‘Coppers’ Cop’, Sir John Stevens. He brought in ethnic and gay recruits, a move that made him popular with the Labour government, but less so within the more traditionally minded rank and file of The Met. When Stevens retired in 2005, Blair took over the top job, to which he had always aspired. With their common intellectual backgrounds, he had quickly established a rapport with Tony Blair, and proudly referred to their regular meetings as ‘Blair on Blair moments’.
Although the post of Commissioner is traditionally a non-political one, he soon courted controversy by supporting the government’s plans for drastic new anti-terrorist legislation and the introduction of identity cards. During the 2005 election campaign, he allowed police Range Rovers carrying Tony Blair to display ‘Vote Labour’ slogans. In the July of that year, London was the target of a major terrorist attack, in which 52 people died in a series of suicide bombings.
His initial handling of this outrage was praised on all sides, particularly when, two weeks later, another similar attack was foiled. The Met was now on full alert so, when a firearms team shot dead a suspect, who they said was resisting arrest at Stockwell Underground station, no immediate alarm bells rang. Sir Ian Blair held a press conference that afternoon, stating that the shooting was “directly linked to the ongoing anti-terrorist operation”.
What he didn’t know, because he hadn’t been told, was that the firearms team had shot an innocent man. A young Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, entering the station, had “acted suspiciously” when ordered by a member of the team to stop, and had paid the price with his life. Blair claimed it was only around mid-morning the following day that he had been told the awful truth. Whether he already had been told, but chose to bury his head in the sand, still has to be determined.
At a court hearing in November 2007, The Met was found guilty of breaching health and safety regulations over the shooting, and criticised for a “catastrophic” series of errors. Blair stood firm, refusing to take responsibility, but the guns were out for him. Then, two senior Muslim aides were suspended from duty after making accusations of racism against him, and both cases are pending.
His luck was beginning to run out when Tony Blair was succeeded by Gordon Brown, who promised to bring a new ‘transparency’ to public life. Then, in an election for a new Mayor of London, his previous ally, Ken Livingstone, was replaced by the extrovert Tory, Boris Johnson, who immediately declared he had no faith in Sir Ian and could not work with him. So, with little political backing, Blair resigned and the media was jubilant.
Within 24 hours of this happening, another news bombshell exploded. Struggling to regain public popularity, after opinion polls showed the Conservatives under David Cameron enjoying an unprecedented lead, Gordon Brown decided on a cabinet reshuffle. This turned out to include the return of one of the most hated figures in the parliamentary Labour Party.
Peter Mandelson was, with Brown and Tony Blair, the architect of New Labour in the late 1980s. The three were inseparable and were known as ‘The Three Musketeers’. When the then leader, John Smith, died in 1994, Brown wrongly assumed Mandelson would back him as the new leader. Instead, he supported the more populist Blair, for which Brown never forgave him.
When Labour swept to power in 1997, Mandelson was rewarded by Blair, and given the trade ministry. However, although he was doing a good job there, disaster struck the following year, when he was forced to resign over accepting a secret loan to purchase a 373,000 pounds Sterling London flat. In a later re-shuffle, he was reinstated in the government but forced to resign a second time, over allegations relating to a passport application by an Indian businessman, who had given one million pounds Sterling to the Millennium Dome project.
Now dubbed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ or ‘The Sultan of Sleaze’, Mandelson was transferred to Brussels, where he re-invented himself as the much-respected EU Trade Commissioner. He says he is delighted to be offered this opportunity to prove that this will be “third time lucky” and, as Business Secretary, will be a major influence on the fortunes of Brown’s creaky government. It’s a big gamble, though, for the prime minister, taking a formerly declared enemy on board but, once again, the media is delighted at the turn of events. There could be much more duplicity ahead.
Meanwhile, the media in the United States was eagerly awaiting the TV confrontation between the two vice-presidential candidates – the experienced Democrat, Joe Biden, and the relatively inexperienced Republican, Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska. Those who considered that John McCain had taken leave of his senses by announcing Ms Palin as his running mate, expected her to fare badly. In the event, her tactics served her well. She didn’t try to bluff her way through questions that were obviously out of her range, instead turning them to her advantage, by comparing big national issues with home-spun anecdotes about her native Alaska.
Barack Obama is currently comfortably ahead in the opinion polls and will have lost no sleep over this TV debate. There is, though, a current rumour in the US media that Senator Biden may withdraw from the candidacy ‘for health reasons’, to be replaced by – Hillary Clinton. Who would place a bet on that?