Blair's cast fails to bring House down

May 30, 1997

The first few shows after a gala opening night are rarely the best. Initial excitement over, the players have to knuckle down to remembering their lines and pacing themselves for the rest of the run.

After Tony Blair's spectacular performance on May 1, his Government's first go at education questions in the House of Commons on May 22 could hardly hope to thrill spectators. Sensibly, in this early performance, the players stuck to what they knew.

Thus the new secretary of state, David Blunkett, launched the afternoon with a brief speech on the end of nursery vouchers and graciously acknowledged welcomes from every side. Gillian Shephard, who had held the star spot before him, was full of congratulations. "I hope he enjoys the work as much as I did," she told him. "I hope I can repay the courtesy she paid me," he responded.

At this, a few extras mistook their cue and thought they had to jeer. This was all wrong, and he repeated the line with extra emphasis.

Next, on schools, we had Estelle Morris. Her entrance was marked with a flourish. "No good school has any need to fear Labour," she announced. Cheers and heckles.

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, was not impressed. In his books, "money, money, money" rather than "education, education, education" had been the main tune of the new Government so far, with its hyperactivity over changes to the Bank of England not yet matched by any such spectacular feats over schools.

Cue Stephen Byers, on school standards, with a fierce number promising action to help all children, hitting out at the previous Government's failings, telling Mrs Shephard she had got things wrong.

Andrew Smith, on employment and disability rights, struck a calmer note, smoothly agreeing with his questioner that discriminating on grounds of age was wrong while saying there was a lot of talking to do before he could bring in a law to stop it.

So to Alan Howarth, on welfare-to-work - his entrance inevitably marked by reference to his recent signing to Labour from the Tories. Undeterred, he kept to his new style, attacking his former associates for treating low wages and poor employment rights as an "economic Nirvana".

And finally, on lifelong learning, Kim Howells with a performance strong on passion but marred by the odd slip. Not yet used to the role of star rather than critic, he persisted in attacking "this Government", forgetting he was now a part of it.

Old performers on the backbenches on the whole held back, but could not resist heckling mentions of unemployment, age or reskilling, all of which led immediately to thoughts of former Tory members.

What they did not lead to much was thoughts of further or higher education. These had just a couple of mentions before the Dearing curtain came down.

Clearly, as far as post-school education is concerned, we will have to await the arrival of superstar Sir Ron before the real performance begins.

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