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New boy settles in on Opposition benches

Frances Rafferty spies on Stephen Dorrell as he picks up the Tories' education portfolio

With his legs stretched out in front of him, Stephen Dorrell - on his first outing in the House of Commons as shadow education secretary - was taking a relaxed approach to his new brief.

On the bench next to him, his lieutenants David Willetts and Angela Browning, faced the larger Government team of David Blunkett, Stephen Byers, Estelle Morris, Alan Howarth, Andrew Smith and Dr Kim Howells for education and employment questions.

But it was also a time for old friends to reacquaint themselves. Tim Boswell, a former Conservative education minister, welcomed Mr Howarth. They had both, he reminded the House, served the Department for Education and Employment together in the days before the MP for Newport East's defection to Labour.

"Yes," replied Mr Howarth, "the whirligig of time produces unpredictable effects."

The session kicked off with the usual queries (and usual answers) on the Government's class size pledge. First contender for a toady award was George Stevenson, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South. Addressing Mr Byers, minister for school standards, he enquired: "Is my Hon friend aware that in my constituency alone, at least 3,500 five, six and seven-year-olds are being taught in classes of more than 30, and in some classes more than 40?

"Is he also aware that that is a disgraceful legacy of 18 years of Conservative government?" Funnily enough, Mr Byers was.

For those on the Opposition benches, it is on occasions such as these that some solace can be sought. "If the Conservatives fiddled the unemployment figures, why does not the minister simply reverse the changes they made?" asked Adrian Sanders, Lib Dem MP for Torbay.

Andrew Smith, employment minister, got to his feet. "Because it is more important to re-establish public confidence in the statistics and methodology. That must not be done on a party political basis. We must decide together and try to find a consensus on the statistics that can command public confidence. "

So there you are.

Towards the end of questions, Gillian Shephard squeezed on to the bench alongside Mr Dorrell, who had contented himself with a couple of sallies on employment. However the former education secretary was not there to give belated advice, she was on next as shadow Leader of the House and waiting to take on her new opponent, Ann Taylor - yet another former education spokeswoman.

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