Shadow warms to role

June 27, 1997

A month ago Stephen Dorrell was cherishing hopes of the Conservative leadership. Today, after his own withdrawal in favour of Kenneth Clarke and then the party's choice of William Hague, he professes himself delighted with his appointment as shadow education and employment secretary.

"It is hard to think of a political job more central to people's real concerns than dealing with education and job prospects," he said this week.

With the return to the backbenches of Mr Clarke and the continuing absence of Chris Patten, Mr Dorrell, 45, becomes the leading frontbencher from the Conservative party's liberal wing.

He points to a logical link with his previous post as health secretary in John Major's government: "Health and education are the two key social policy briefs. I was previously rather resistant to the idea that education was the senior of the two, now I'm not so sure."

And there is a direct link through medical education - as health secretary he was responsible for appointing the inquiry into medical education headed by Howard Newby, vice chancellor of Southampton University.

Like any minister given a new brief, he is wary on specific policy. But he picked up some experience of higher education issues as member for Loughborough from 1979 - when he was the youngest MP at - until the last election, when he made the calculated move to neighbouring, ultra-safe, Charnwood. "I attended the University of Loughborough council regularly until I became a minister," he said.

He joins the rest of the higher education world in waiting for Dearing, but is prepared to outline broad preoccupations. "I have a very strong commitment to fair access and equality of opportunity throughout life. I do not accept that in our society people's chances should be determined by their background or family income."

One policy area that can expect considerable attention is financial support for students and other young people. "I have always thought that there is something rather peculiar about the structure of incentives for people between 16 and 24."

His three-strong team will be kept busy facing six ministers and a considerable list of projected legislation, but he hopes for assistance from backbenchers interested in education issues.

"You have to draw a line between front and back bench in government, because somebody has to be the minister. But in opposition that line does not have to be so precise. I want to run an inclusive operation and anyone who wants to make a contribution will be welcome," he said.

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