The big fight: Blackstone v Blatch

20th February 1998 at 00:00
"You can feel the vibes across the dispatch box," said Baroness Blatch, her raised eyebrows revealing exactly which sort of vibes she means.

Education minister Baroness Blackstone, the source of this alleged malevolence, has been the Conservative peer's sparring partner since the Teaching and Higher Education Bill was launched last year in the House of Lords.

But Lady Blackstone is surprised: "I've been on the other side of the chamber debating with her and she is always forceful in what she says - that's fine with me - and I will be forceful in reply."

The Bill, which establishes a general teaching council and introduces a new loan system for students, has had a bad-tempered run. Opposition peers say they are are angry because the legislation is light on detail, giving the Education Secretary great powers to fill in the gaps - outside the glare of public debate - by regulation.

Lady Blatch has harried her opponent to tease out aspects of the Bill, which she believes is a hurried, ill-thought-out piece of legislation. She accused Lady Blackstone of stonewalling, but almost admits to feeling sorry for her. "If I had been left as unprepared as she is by her officials, I would have ensured they got a rocket," she said.

Lady Blackstone disagrees. She said lots of Bills, including some put through by Lady Blatch, have left the details to regulation. She says the Government has also listened to peers' arguments and has come back with suitable amendments, for example stipulating that practising teachers will be the majority on a general teaching council.

"The Tories had 18 years to introduce a GTC, but were endlessly opposed to it, including Lady Blatch when she was education minister, " she said.

Lady Blackstone said consultation on the council will continue, for example on the way it will relate to the Teacher Training Agency. If it were to be given wider powers and more functions, further legislation would be required.

Lady Blackstone is cerebral, sleek and metropolitan with the scary beauty of Snow White's wicked stepmother. Lady Blatch is short, sturdy and county with a tough fighting style. Lady Blackstone has been described as icy and terrifying, and Lady Blatch as intolerant and bullying.

In fact they were perfectly charming - the education minister in her department office and Lady Blatch dispensing China tea and muffins in the House of Lords.

They will be back in battle next week when the Bill reaches its report stage, arguing over a Liberal Democrat attempt to rerun the debate on student loans and tuition fees, thus delaying its passage.

The loans issue began badly for the baroness. Left minding the fort as other ministers holidayed, she was embarrassingly caught on the hop by the gap-year question - and was forced into retreat saying those who had planned a year out will not pay the new fees.

Lady Blatch says a Conservative government would most likely have implemented Sir Ron Dearing's advice to introduce the fees, but retain the grants.

A former air traffic controller, Lady Blatch cut her political teeth on Cambridgeshire council and became a close friend of John Major. She was promoted by Lady Thatcher in 1987 and became an environment and then education minister, moving latterly to the Home Office.

She has she steered two Education Acts, through the Lords and had a rocky ride with the Crime (Sentencing) Bill. The baroness is a traditionalist, a right-winger, who is rock solid in her views.

She recalls taking on a House of Lords packed with hostile judges, the Lord Chief Justice and Master of the Rolls. "I was in full flight, expounding to the most senior legal figures in the land what the punishment for the theft of a loaf of bread should be. When I got home that night I went cold at the thought of it," she admitted.

Lady Blatch's distrust of Lady Blackstone is not just over the present Bill. Despite the pale pink glow New Labour gives off, her past as student and lecturer at the London School of Economics in the 1960s and officer at the Inner London Education Authority, loom large for Lady Blatch.

However, the education minister's curriculum vitae is impeccable: she first made her name 30 years ago with her thesis on childcare and in the 1970s worked for the Labour Government's Central Policy Review staff. She was appointed as professor of education administration at London University's Institute of Education and was feted as Master of Birkbeck College, London. She is a past chair of the Fabian Society and leading figure in the creation of the Institute for Public Policy Research and has been a member of various august bodies from the Royal Opera House to the BBC Advisory Council.

But she has made enemies. One former colleague and admirer explained how she can make herself unpopular: "She can seem very condescending . . . and that's because at times she is," he said.

Her enemies have found a willing press. There has been a drip, drip, drip of rumour and innuendo in political columns that she is unhappy at the education and employment department and the department is unhappy with her.She was miffed, it is said, because she was not given the job at the Foreign Office.

She was called a "boot-faced second-rater" by the right-wing journalist Simon Heffer for trying to get Cambridge University to take on more state-educated pupils. The powerful Oxbridge mob say her anti-elitism has made her unsympathetic to their cherished alma maters. A plan to check their preferential tutoring grants was seen as a case in point.

She countered: "I passionately believe in excellence. I have worked 10 years in a research university pursuing excellence."

But a loyalist suggested other reasons for hostility. "She is an attractive, strong successful woman. But she isn't an Edwina Currie sort of politician . . . she does things on her own terms and some men don't seem to be able to take that."

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