An android with no dress sense?

20th January 2006 at 00:00
It was a concerted, frenzied and sometimes brutal assault. The combination of a minister, already beset by political troubles, and lacking the common touch, alongside tabloid headlines that included the emotive label "pervs", proved irresistible.

As Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, became the latest politician to experience the intense searchlight of the media gaze, the photographers camped on her doorstep before breakfast and the feature writers raked over her working hours, family commitments and choice in clothes.

As the week progressed, each day brought new cases and media demands for explanation. The Department for Education and Skills was simply overwhelmed.

Although many commentators had predicted a tough year for Ms Kelly, no one had anticipated her troubles would start so soon or that they would stem from the appointment of a PE teacher in Norfolk.

The newspapers were mostly, but not uniformly, hostile. Although the story started fairly quietly in The Observer, it gained rapid momentum once the Daily Mail, in particular, trained its guns on Ms Kelly. In a lengthy profile, Geoffrey Levy said her "android confidence" was called into question as her "incompetence" was exposed. The next day, the Mail stepped up a gear, arguing that "being a mother of four isn't compatible with the cut-throat world of high level politics".

The parliamentary sketch writers were mostly unimpressed with her statement to the Commons. Ann Treneman in The Times was one of many to make personal comments about Ms Kelly's appearance saying she "still has a big shiny L-plate pinned to her defiantly unfashionable trouser suits".

While most commentators took Ms Kelly to task for not taking a clear or tough enough line on sex offenders in schools, Tom Utley in the Telegraph attacked her from the opposite perspective.

Recalling the "fumbling" of pupils by masters at his old school (also the alma mater of Ruth Kelly), he said boys had laughed this off at the time.

The teachers had still been good educators.

Nevertheless, Ms Kelly looked badly cornered. More sympathetic newspapers, such as The Guardian (her former employer), noted that as the youngest member of the Cabinet and "a working mother of four" she appeared to some newspapers like "a tethered goat on a tiger shoot".

Yet even The Guardian's editorial, while distancing itself from the more savage attacks, concluded that she was "running on empty". The Independent's Richard Garner felt the bigger test would be the fate of the forthcoming education Bill. Either way, she was on a loser: if the Bill were defeated it would be "curtains for her" but even if it were passed she would still be "reshuffled" to another post.

Still, teachers south of the border will not be too surprised if there is another change at the top; they are already on their fourth Education Secretary in five years. That is an even higher turnover than for most headteachers in English schools.

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