Fraser Nelson talks to Douglas Alexander, the young Transport Secretary, who shot to prominence during last week’s terrorist threat to our airports
The last week has given us our first, unexpected glimpse of the post-Blair era. There has been a crisis at the airports, a massive terrorist plot averted. Yet the only sign of the Prime Minister has been blurry pictures of a pair of floral swimming trunks disappearing into the Caribbean. Instead, the two politicians running Britain last week — leaving aside the wretched figure of John Prescott — were the familiar figure of John Reid and a diminutive 38-year-old of whom we will be hearing much more in the coming months.
When Douglas Alexander was appointed Transport Secretary, his new role was seen as one of the more thankless junior Cabinet jobs, involving sporadic rows over the railways, congestion charging and carbon dioxide emissions. But last week he found himself propelled into the front line in the war against terrorism, co-ordinating the emergency security regime across British airports, and taking the measures necessary to thwart those members of the alleged plot still presumed to be at large.
Yet on Tuesday last week he had nothing more taxing on his mind than how to catch a lobster. Holidaying on the Isle of Mull with his family, he was feeling frustrated: he had trapped only a single crab. ‘I took a call from the permanent secretary [Sir David Rowlands],’ he says, ‘indicating that there were matters he needed to have somebody brief me on, but was not able to do so over a open line.’ So an official had to be sent to find and brief him in the Inner Hebrides. ‘That official had no idea when action would be required to be taken, he said,’ — the police had not decided precisely when to swoop on the suspects. ‘But I made a judgment that I should nonetheless immediately return to the department to lead its work.’
An RAF helicopter picked him up from Mull and by 5 p.m. on Wednesday he was back at his desk, being told about the chaos and uncertainty that was about to engulf Britain’s airports. ‘Almost exactly on the conclusion of that exercise and briefing at which I was anticipating returning to my London flat, we were given an indication that the action was likely to commence on the basis of an operational decision reached by the police.’ Mr Alexander, you will note, talks like the lawyer that he is.
Here, at last, was the political moment that had been predicted for Mr Alexander since he entered parliament aged 29. He has always been regarded as the protégé of Gordon Brown, whom he has known since university days. The two share the same Presbyterian upbringing, interests and political outlook. But if this was his true Cabinet debut, it was by no means an unqualified success.
While police and intelligence services acted quickly, the defining images of the week were of confusion in the nation’s sweaty terminals, as 10,000 holidays were disrupted and acrimonious arguments broke out between the airports and the airline operators. Mr Alexander does not duck responsibility. The instruction not to carry liquid on aircraft was his, he said.
‘Yes, I took the decision on the basis of advice from the best technical, security and scientific evidence available to government. Our own experts have talked with aviation industry experts. But ultimately the responsibility for public safety rests with government and it is up to government to set the appropriate regime.’ But was it fit for purpose? ‘I have been assured on the basis of the best advice available to me that we are able to put in place a regime sufficiently rigorous to reflect the level of threats judged by the experts.’
Yes, he really does speak like that. He is credited in Labour circles with a sharp mind, and probably the best grasp of centre-left politics in the Labour party. He is not yet 40, it is added, and is therefore certain to be a major force shaping the party over the next decade. Such brains and energy would be a powerful combination, they admit, if only he could learn to be less prolix.
Some politicians call a spade a spade. Others call it a bloody shovel. And some call it a garden utensil with the strength and capacity to penetrate and, indeed, excavate soil. Mr Alexander firmly belongs in this last category — all the trickier, given that we have just 15 minutes in a telephone interview. Each question seems to trigger a flood of words, but a trickle of information.
I ask about his relationship with Mr Reid — they seemed to work well together in the last week in spite of their history of Blairite v. Brownite animosity. ‘There was, I believe, an easy and effective working relationship which meant we were able to get the decisions taken that needed to be taken. That meant implementing the co-operation which people have the right to expect to have been in place,’ he says. So that’s a yes, I think.
I ask whether he accepts that, after the fiasco of the Iraq dossiers, trust in the government on intelligence matters is an issue. ‘I hope that action taken this week by not just the security agencies but the police will quieten some of the voices that have been critical of the police in the past,’ he says. ‘Certainly, from the discussions that I have participated in during the course of recent days, I am convinced that they [the police] do have the best interests of the British people at heart.’
Well, that’s a relief. But it is the government, not the police, who are mistrusted by the public — which may be a problem when ministers push for greater powers to arrest terror suspects. Mr Reid last week observed that the European Convention on Human Rights was agreed in 1950, when the last great threat had been fascist states. But the new menace, he said, is ‘fascist individuals’. Does Mr Alexander agree the phrase applies? ‘One of the changes that we’re encountering is that the threat in the 20th century was from conquering states, where as often the threat in the 21st century is presented by non-state actors, networks of individuals capable on the basis of technology and understanding to wreak very considerable harm, indeed mass murder, to conventional states and to conventional populations,’ Mr Alexander says. Somewhere in here, again, there seems to be a lawyerly ‘yes’.
Mr Alexander is not unaware of his weakness. When he was challenged about sounding robotic by the Scottish press last month, he almost admitted it. ‘There’s always an assumption that you are the finished article as soon as you are subjected to an interview,’ he replied. ‘I have enough self-knowledge and humility to know that I still have a lot to learn.’
This is certainly true of the last week. The unspoken lesson to be learnt from last week is that security need not be accompanied by bedlam if it is properly organised and the rules are clearly expressed. Mr Alexander is now back in Mull with his family — who caught the lobster in his absence — and he will have plenty to mull over. Disaster was averted last week, but chaos was not. He and his department still have plenty to learn.