Able, apt and atthe ready

27th October 1995 at 00:00
Stephen Byers is generally acknowledged to be one of the ablest of the new MPs elected in 1992. He was one of the half-dozen MPs selected to spend a year in the whips' office to gain experience of the Commons machine.

As might be expected from a former chairman of the education committee of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Council of Local Education Authorities, he has a grasp of the intricacies of education funding that could arouse the envy of others.

He combined being deputy leader of North Tyneside with a day job as a senior law lecturer at Newcastle University until he won the nomination for Wallsend, one of Labour's safest seats.

For someone who had played a prominent national role from a local government base, the Commons back benches can induce a sense of frustration. However, Mr Byers has proved to be a real irritant to ministers, extracting information from reluctant departments.

During the committee stage of the last Education Bill, he demonstrated that it was possible to score points at the Government's expense with well-researched contributions. On the Commons floor, the aptness of his Ruskin quote applied to John Patten - "conceit may puff a man up, but it cannot prop him up" - earned him respect in a House where performance is all.

His brief in Labour's education team is training, particularly developing schemes to help the employment prospects of the under-26s. He is also taking on lifelong learning, which is dear to Tony Blair's vision of what can be achieved by a radical Labour government.

Whether he is actually a Blairite is difficult to judge. There is no doubting his loyalty and his conviction that Labour needs to change to attract a new electorate. However, he would probably prefer people to forget that he voted for Bryan Gould rather than John Smith in the last leadership election but one.

He may have modernising tendencies, but there remains the suspicion that his attachment to municipal socialism probably outweighs other considerations. In that respect, he shares David Blunkett's enthusiasm for local councils as a power for good.

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