The new ministers

May 9, 1997


"THIS MAKES a change. This is my first press conference since Ileft Sheffield that I've not called to try to slag off the Government." David Blunkett, 49, newly installed at the DFEE, caught the political world-turned-upside-down mood as he met the press for the first time only a few hours after being installed at Sanctuary House, writes Huw Richards.

His position as one of the few front-benchers promised his job before the election, and one of the first appointed after Labour won, reflects Tony Blair's declared commitment to making education one of his government's top priorities.

It also reflects a key political role for one of the cornerstones of the broadranging coalition underpinning Tony Blair's ascendancy within the party. Like John Prescott and Robin Cook, he is not an instinctive New Labour figure. He organised Bryan Gould's leadership campaign in 1992 before backing Mr Blair and Mr Prescott in 1994 and has adjusted to the new style defined by Mr Blair.

That career has been firmly rooted in his native South Yorkshire. A graduate in politics at Sheffield University, he lectured at Barnsley Technical College at the same time as sitting on Sheffield City Council. His blindness alone would have ensured that he stood out among Labour council leaders in the early 1980s, but there was also a highly distinctive style. Sheffield's ability to combine radical policies such as a low-fares public transport policy with a broad pragmatism led John Banham, head of the Audit Commission, to exclaim, "If you want to know how to run an efficient Labour council, go and look at Sheffield" while in debate with Derek Hatton, leading light of Liverpool's ultra-left, on Question Time.

Elected to the constituency section of Labour's National Executive before becoming an MP, the first to do so for more than 30 years, he made it into the House for the safe seat of Sheffield Brightside in 1987. Elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1992, the possibility of his winning the education brief led his three sons to contemplate writing to then-leader John Smith to appeal to him, in the words of Mr Blunkett's autobiography On A Clear Day, "Not to make their Dad Shadow Education Secretary because he was keen on homework and discipline and would make their lives a misery".

He got the health job instead, but was appointed to the education post when Mr Blair became leader in 1994. In opposition his team was hugely productive, generating more than half the policy documents debated at the 1996 Labour Party conference. His management style continues to reflect his approach in Sheffield - in his own words: "I was very tough on what I wanted to do and was perhaps in some instances over the top in expecting people to jump into action. I made it transparently clear that I would not accept incompetence and that I expected chief officers to run their departments with the utmost efficiency. This obsession with efficiency was for me allied to a strong sense of public service."

The bulk of his attention went into schools issues, with responsibility for presenting higher education policy largely delegated to the ill-fated Bryan Davies. But Mr Blunkett's period as shadow secretary of state saw Labour drop its traditional commitment to grants in order to adopt graduate contributions and playing a vital bipartisan role in the appointment of the Dearing review.

He has a clear position on one aspect of the higher education funding debate, telling the 1996 party conference that there would be no top-up fees under a Labour government.

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