What has happened to the post of Home Secretary these days? Why has it become such a poisoned chalice?
You would think a primary requirement for a Home Secretary might be intellectual rigour combined with an ability to stand up to the stridencies of the more extreme wings of the party in power.
Instead, not long ago, Labour had the fiasco of Jacqui Smith in the post.
And now the Tories have Theresa May.
I watched the Tories airing their views during this year’s Party Conference with mingled astonishment and disappointment at the gibberish originating from several Cabinet Ministers in the present coalition government.
None of the speeches was impressive – and David Cameron, not at his best, failed to carry conviction.
But the big joke of the conference was Theresa May.
The focus of the Home Secretary’s speech was the Human Rights Act, which she claimed was bad for the country and ripe for scrapping, taking her examples of its misworkings from the cases of criminals of foreign origin whom Britain has been unable to deport.
This was to place the blame on the legislation itself, and not where it truly belongs: on its interpretation by the judiciary, where it is some of our esteemed judges who give the impression of needing education.
But, dramatically, Mrs May then came out with the notoriously stupid example of a Bolivian man escaping deportation simply because he owned a pet cat, which was said to be evidence of a family tie.
Theresa May had certainly played to the lowest common denominators of the Tory gallery – and got their hoots of laughter – but, believe it or not, when the furore and derision that the story elicited broke in the outside world Downing Street moved to support the truth of it.
How are we to take our politicians with any measure of seriousness when they make such fools of themselves in so ridiculous a manner?
Only the veteran politician Kenneth Clarke has taken issue with the Home Secretary, saying she had made ‘a parody’ of a court ruling and declaring the pet cat story to be complete nonsense.
Moreover, it seemed she was using it to try and put pressure on the work of the commission currently looking into human rights legislation to see how it might be improved or replaced.
The reward for Mr Clarke’s common sense is to have stirred up a gale of speculation about his future in the Cabinet, with suggestions being made that he’s in line to be axed at David Cameron’s next reshuffle in the New Year.
If such speculations do come to pass, then the hopes of a future Conservative administration are doomed to failure – for how can we find any party electable if it proposes to demolish something as important as human rights legislation with a story about a cat?
The fall of Mr Clarke would also infer that trivial gimmicks are acceptable in serious debate, despite their silliness, and will prove to the public that politics and politicians in Britain are in a downward trend from which they do not seem even to have a wish to extract themselves.
If we are to retain our dignity as a nation, then our present coalition government, with its mixed balances of checks and responsibilities, should certainly not follow in the path of the shambolic Labour government that it replaced.
The Conservative Party Conference for 2011 offered little reassurance in this respect, having offered up ‘Catgate’ as the theme by which it will be best remembered.