Blair holds off baying press pack

21st November 2003 at 00:00
"Surrender and a 'pound;30,000 bill' for humbled Hodge" declared the Daily Mail, as the children's minister saved her career after a week of woeful headlines. Political correspondent Norman Smith told BBC Radio 4's Today programme she had to "eat large and copious amounts of humble pie".

Mrs Hodge had sought to discourage a Today investigation into how she handled allegations of the abuse of children in council care when she led Islington Council in the eighties. She wrote to BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, calling one victim, Demetrious Panton, "an extremely disturbed person".

But a Mail interview with Mr Panton found "an articulate, intelligent 36 year-old with a philosophy degree and an IQ of 137" who also had advised John Prescott. So Mr Panton got two apologies, a pound;10,000 donation to charity and his legal costs before dropping a threatened law suit.

Despite calls to quit from The Times ("she must muster the courage to go") and the Sun ("Axe her now"), Mrs Hodge survived to fight another day. The Guardian's Polly Toynbee thought her the victim of a Salem-style public burning, while Sunday Times columnist Jasper Gerard likened making her responsible for children to making Robert Mugabe minister for rural affairs.

Both were over the top. The truth is that Mrs Hodge has been a champion for effective children's services since swapping Town Hall for Whitehall - and a good minister. But she made several avoidable mistakes. She used offensive and pejorative language to describe somebody betrayed by Islington's care system.

She did so in a letter to senior BBC figures at a time when the corporation is at its most sensitive about government interference, so publication of her remarks was inevitable. After surviving a media drubbing when she was appointed children's minister, she opened herself up to further attack.

Put simply, she has been her own worst enemy. Without Tony Blair's backing, she would not have survived the last week. And she can afford no more mistakes if she is to keep her job.

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