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Sleaze swamps the big duel

It should have been such a big day for Education Secretary Gillian Shephard and her Labour opponent David Blunkett. Circled in their diaries for weeks, it was a first outing for both new appointees in their only parliamentary showpiece, Education Questions.

Mrs Shephard had an ace up her sleeve with the unveiling of her task force on under-fives. Mr Blunkett, meanwhile, fingering his Braille notes, announced his intention of "crossing ideological swords with her". But both were upstaged by the Prime Minister, the Speaker . . . and education junior minister Eric Forth.

Education Questions had fallen foul of sleaze, to become no more than the warm-up act before Prime Minister's Questions and further uproar over The Guardian, that "cod fax", John Major's apparent allusion to Paddy Ashdown's ancient affair and Speaker Betty Boothroyd's decision to hold an emergency debate on the matter (the fax, not the affair).

Perhaps that was why the main education protagonists had dressed down, with Mrs S eschewing her trademark lurid jacket for a sober black number with Puritan white collar. Mr Blunkett, meanwhile, sported the only frontbench tie which owed little to pillar box red.

Happily, this restraint did not extend to the duellists' seconds, with Labour's Peter Kilfoyle displaying a cheerful red tie. All sartorial honours, however, went to Eric Forth, who is beginning seriously to resemble the results of a collision between Norman Tebbit, a Rottweiler and a Christmas tree. The watch-chain set off the two-tone shirt, multi-toned tie and emerald hanky a treat, while the vicious haircut is reminiscent of the school bully. A pity really, because Mr Forth is a) rather a nice man, and b) was required to discuss school discipline.

Despite being on his feet for much of the session, Mr Forth somehow managed to avoid congratulating anyone - unlike most of his colleagues. Mr Blunkett congratulated Mrs Shephard on her appointment. She congratulated the Honourable Gentleman on his.Liberal Democrat education spokesman Don Foster joined in the orgy of politeness.

Labour bete noire Tony Banks congratulated Mr Forth on his selective use of statistics and suggested he might like to praise his own constituency, Newham, which had the highest proportion of under-fives in nursery classes.

Instead, Mr Forth bit back. "It is difficult to praise a constituency which returns the honourable gentleman. I might on my better days try but on this occasion the honourable gentleman is being uncharacteristically simplistic. "

Higher education minister Tim Boswell seems to be taking lessons, making a sly dig about Labour's past turmoil on the subject to his opposite number Bryan Davies: "May I congratulate the honourable gentleman upon the retention of his somewhat dangerous portfolio. Will he tell us what he plans to do with higher education?" But what of the stars of the show? Mr Blunkett - ignored only by his snoozing guide dog, Lucy - started with a tricky question on nursery funding for Mrs Shephard. Crisply, she replied: "We haven't made decisions yet, but additional funding is part of the policy. Whenever it is new provision, it will be new money."

As Secretary of State, she benefited from some sycophantic questions, reaching the apogee of silliness when she was asked to agree with a statement saying, roughly, that drugs were A Bad Thing and schools should campaign against them. "Of course I agree with the honourable gentleman," she replied.

She used none of the blustering malice employed by her predecessor. Peter Kilfoyle quizzed her on the sending of pro-grant maintained videos to parents in a school which has already voted against the move. Pausing only to congratulate him on his appointment, she smoothly reiterated the Government line that parents and governors should consider opting out using accurate information. Don Foster enquired about the mysterious rise in school dinners taken in GM establishments on census days. It was, she replied, being investigated.

Meanwhile, Mr Blunkett earned himself a Forthing for complaining about "the Group Four approach to school discipline" leading to the exclusion of 8, 000 pupils. To growing jeers, Mr Forth explained that perhaps when Mr Blunkett had had more time to look at the figures, he would see they were not as they first appeared.

A quiet but promising start, then, after the horrors of the Taylor vs Patten Education Questions, with the change in attitude probably best summed up by Mr Forth's explanation for the about-turn on nursery policy. "It's a simple process of evolution." Quite.

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