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The safe pair of hands

Ngaio Crequer, profiles new ministers for lifelong learning and employment

There were few gaffes in the Labour party election campaign but Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East since 1987, was quietly blamed for one of them. Labour leader Tony Blair had indicated the party would go ahead with more privatisations to meet spending plans, and air traffic control seemed to be a potential target.

Out came film of Mr Smith making a passionate plea against privatisation at Labour's autumn conference. "Our air is not for sale," he told delegates.

Mr Smith was quickly shunted into a low-profile role, one which he has been eminently suited for in his parliamentary careers. He was a low-key spokesman on higher education in 1988-92, then became shadow chief secretary to the treasury. Last summer, he replaced Clare Short at Labour's transport post who had been making too many waves or headlines for Mr Blair's liking.

Intelligent but dull, " a safe pair of hands ", these are among the epithets used. He was part of Labour's "key campaign" group targeting likely marginal seats.

Educated at Reading School and St John's College, Oxford, he is good on detail, and understands his brief but lacks the killer punch. He has been appointed minister for employment and disability rights, and will handle the difficult Welfare to Work programme.

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