The Royal Mail is an iconic service. It is bound up with the country's heritage, and it offers a flat rate service for posting letters and parcels across the diverse geographical expanse of these islands. And it runs the only truly national network of rural businesses in the country - the humble post office.
Margaret Thatcher balked at privatising so valuable a national service. Not from some sort of rare altruism and sensitivity towards a much loved brand, but because she wasn't prepared to take on the inevitable battle. But then, in those days, she faced an Opposition in parliament that actually, well, opposed. New Labour has no such worries. Every time they come up with an unpopular policy which they can't get past their own MPs, it seems they can depend on the good old Tories to do the job for them. Want a war with a Middle Eastern state - ask the Tories. Got an unpopular education bill to pass? Ask the Tories. And, yes, want to privatise a popular, much valued public service - here come the Tories again. Mandelson may be alienating up to 140 of his own MPs (not that he needs to actually talk to them, or even see them from his perch in the Lords), but Ken Clarke has waded into the debate today to promise his support for the part-privatisation plan.
The Royal Mail suffers from strictures on its services that do not apply to the 22 other licensed postal services in this country. But, of course, the Royal Mail is the only one that is obliged to deliver anywhere in the country for the same fee. No wonder it is so favoured by the majority of the public, and no wonder there is a deep suspicion of a privatisation which, critics say, will only aienate the profitable parts of the Royal Mail to foreign owners, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab for the unprofitable bits.
Even Tory supporters seem to hate the idea. On the Conservative Home site, underneath the story about Ken Clarke's lifeline to Peter Mandelson, a raft of comments indicate a persistent suspicion of the plans, and a growling criticism of the role being played by the Tories. Bizarrely, even the Liberals seem to be lining up behind the privatisation plans. And the British voter? Forget it. Who ever thought MPs were there to serve his interests?