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An outspoken Labour politician, associated with the left wing of the 1990s party, who nonetheless remained in Tony Blair's cabinet for six years as the minister for international development. To the surprise of her sympathisers, she emerged as a card-carrying liberal interventionist during the Kosovo campaign, but could not be persuaded to support the war on Iraq, and tendered her resignation in May 2003, delivering a damning attack on Blair's style of government.

If You Mention Breasts

Short was born in February 1946 in Birmingham, the second of seven children. Her father, an Irish nationalist, came from Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland, and she describes herself as an 'ethnic Catholic'. She argued in the 1980s that British troops should leave the province; more recently, she has claimed that her Irish Catholic background helped to dispel the suspicions that the African governments she worked with might otherwise have attached to a British minister.

She studied politics at Leeds University, and at the age of 18 became unexpectedly pregnant. She gave her baby son up for adoption, and was reunited with him in 1996, to the delight of the Westminster press corps. After university, she became a private secretary to a Conservative MP, Mark Carlisle, in the early 1970s, and decided that she could make a better show of the job than many of Carlisle's colleagues. She spent six years with the inner-city charity YouthAid before deciding to run for Parliament herself.

In 1983, Short accordingly became the Labour MP for the constituency of Birmingham Ladywood, which she has represented throughout her political career. She almost immediately made her presence known with her campaign against topless page 3 girls, denouncing them as pornographic and calling for newspapers containing such material to be restricted to the top shelf in newsagents so that they would not be visible to children. Her stance on the issue made her the target of perhaps predictable ridicule from the government backbenches, leading her to comment: "If you mention breasts, fifty Tory MPs all giggle and fall over."

The campaign eventually developed into a wider-ranging move to outlaw pornography altogether, attempting to have it defined as 'incitement to sexual hatred' and as reprehensible as incitement to racial hatred had already been deemed. For a time, she allied with activists including Andrea Dworkin and the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock in the Campaign Against Pornography, but the group split and Short provoked some bitterness when she threw her weight behind the more moderate section endorsed by the Labour party.

Dark Shadows

Short established her reputation as a serial resigner during the tail end of Neil Kinnock's leadership of the party, leaving the Shadow Cabinet on two occasions. In 1988, she was unable to countenance the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which she considered overly repressive in Northern Ireland, and in 1991 she refused to associate herself with Labour's support for the first Gulf War because the bombing was likely to cause famine and chaos. Her reservations were shared, as it happened, by her shadow-cabinet colleague Robin Cook, who - on this occasion - did not surrender his portfolio.

She was reappointed in 1993, the year that her second husband Alex Lyons died of Alzheimer's disease, and she spent two years as the shadow minister for women before being moved to transport, one of the issues on which John Major's government seemed most vulnerable. In the mid-1990s, she was already displaying her penchant for speaking out on issues far beyond the limits of her portfolio, and supported the legalisation of cannabis in 1995. Her admission in March 1996 that middle-income earners, herself included, deserved to pay more tax threatened to undermine Tony Blair's policy of reassuring the middle classes, the strategy that led to Labour's election victory in 1997.

Short's uneasy relationship with Blair arose in 1996, when she was shunted aside from transport and given responsibility for international development, the portfolio she would assume in Blair's cabinet. Transport, as a linchpin of Labour's manifesto, was one of the jobs to be placed in the safer hands of Blair's modernist coterie, and she gave a press interview declaring that politics was a 'hurtful business' that she would not advise a young woman to enter.

A month later, she accused Blair of being surrounded by 'dark men', shadowy advisers - implicitly spinmeisters Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell - who were attempting to corrupt him into a slippery focus-group Frankenstein. By Short's admission, the animosity between herself and Blair's unaccountable inner circle did not diminish during the Labour government.

Bomber Short

Short's years at the Department of International Development won her the respect of leading charities, who praised her determination to raise the profile of humanitarian causes. One of her earliest acts as secretary of state was to pick up the campaign against landmines where the late Diana, Princess of Wales had unavoidably left off, and had herself photographed on Brighton beach in the same flak jacket the Princess had sported on her celebrated trip to Angola.

Short, however, had never been immune to the occasional gaffe, and raised eyebrows when she remarked that the inhabitants of Montserrat, left homeless after a volcano devastated their Caribbean island in December 1997, "will be wanting golden elephants next." She frequently clashed with other departments and agencies, and refused to lobby on behalf of British business when she made an official visit to China in December 1998 on the grounds that Beijing should buy the most cost-effective project rather than being leant on by Western politicians.

When the British government granted an export licence in December 2001 so that an £28 million air traffic control system could be sold to Tanzania, a deal approved by Blair and his loyal trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt, Short was so indignant that her resignation was rumoured to be imminent for several weeks. In the end, however, she decided that she would make more contribution to her cause by remaining in the cabinet, the self-appointed conscience of Labour's second term.

All the same, Downing Street's answer to Jacob Marley did not rattle her chains when NATO bombed Serbia in an attempt to overthrow Slobodan MiloŇ°ević in spring 1999, an apparent inconsistency which earned her the nickname 'Bomber Short' in The Guardian's diary column. Short seemed able to reconcile her role as champion of the underdog with the liberal interventionism, endorsed by Blair, that sanctioned violating state sovereignty for the sake of human rights.

A Step Too Far

Still, the possibility that Britain might join America's war on Iraq without the support of the United Nations was believed to stretch Short too far, and in early 2003 she stated that she would resign if war broke out without the all-important second resolution. While Robin Cook turned in his red box on the eve of the conflict, amid speculation that he might become a focus of backbench Labour opposition to 'Blair's war', Short chose to remain in the cabinet after being assured by the prime minister that her department would be crucial to the reconstruction of Iraq.

After the war ended, Short quickly became alarmed at the prevailing American attitude to rebuilding the Iraqi state, and attacked what she perceived as a lack of American interest in preventing the now-endemic looting or distributing aid. Like many Labour 'rebels', she was also angered by Blair's enthusiasm for introducing foundation hospitals, a reform which she believed undermined the ideals of the National Health Service.

When she failed to respond to a three-line whip when the House of Commons voted on the issue, it became rumoured that she was either snubbing or being snubbed by Downing Street, but she claimed that she had confused the times. To observers, it appeared that she had decided that Blair's promises had been hollow, and her eventual resignation on May 12, 2003 was surely one of the best advertised in British politics.

No doubt following Cook's example, Short made her exit with a damning resignation speech, in which she criticised Blair's wartime diplomacy and suggested that only the United Nations should have undertaken the reconstruction of Iraq. Her accusation that Blair had become obsessed with his place in history and issued 'diktats' to the cabinet in an almost presidential style, chimed with the misgivings of many on the left.

The speech was compared to Geoffrey Howe's attack on Margaret Thatcher in 1989, which heralded the beginning of the end for the Iron Lady, but Short's failure to resign two months earlier seemed to undermine her credibility as a source of opposition.

It was whispered, instead, that Short's resignation had been the latest round in the deepening rivalry between Blair and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer with designs on Blair's job: Brown had offered Short's initiatives against world poverty consistent support, and only recently she had repaid the favour by backing Brown's attitude that 'five economic tests' were necessary before Britain entered the euro. Were Brown to achieve his ambition, it did not seem inconceivable that Short might return to the Cabinet, thus giving her the chance of a fourth dramatic exit.

Read her resignation speech: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics/story/0,3605,954595,00.html

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