Blair speech-writer with gift for getting up noses

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Phil Collins, Tony Blair's chief speech-writer, is not a man to shirk a challenge.

A member of the New Labour football team Demon Eyes, he was sent off while taking part in a supposed friendly match against the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Government's favourite think-tank.

Those who have witnessed his on-pitch performance describe how the Leeds United fan often "loses it" on the football field, flying from one crunching tackle to another in his desire to impose himself on a game. And this combativeness - minus the stud marks - is also evident in his working life.

Mr Collins, 38, is willing to challenge accepted practice in the public sector, and shows little concern if it irritates people.

As Nick Pearce, director of the IPPR, said: "He has a talent for saying things people don't want to hear and for challenging lazy assumptions."

Mr Collins spent five years as director of the Social Market Foundation before moving to Downing Street in May, positioning the centrist think-tank as more Blairite than Blair.

In his new position, he suggests ideas across the public sector. But education is closest to his heart. He is a strong advocate of parental choice and of holding schools accountable, and he has no truck with those among the unions and the Labour left who argue for professionals to be allowed to get on with the job.

Education policy proposals during his time at the SMF included allocating places in oversubscribed schools by lottery, shifting money from higher education to the early years, and allowing private schools to run academies for profit.

But anyone who sees only a hard-tackling policy wonk operating on new Labour's right-wing is using selective vision.

The former Bury grammar school pupil has a northern public schoolboy charm, particularly in small groups and one-to-one situations. One of life's over-achievers, the former beau of Natalie Imbruglia - the Neighbours actress turned pop star - combines confidence in his intellectual ability with a blunt down-to-earthness that can be refreshing in a new Labour world obsessed with presentation.

He is married to Geeta Guru-Murthy - sister of Channel 4 newsreader Krishnan - with whom he has a one-year-old son, Hari. Their second son, Mani, was born last week.

Mr Collins studied history at Birmingham university, politics in London, and took a PhD in political theory at Cambridge before working in the City, first for Fleming Investment Management, then HSBC, and finally as head of UK equity strategy at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.

He has also worked for the BBC, Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, and as a research officer at London university's institute of education.

Mr Collins has also found time to write two novels, The Men From the Boys and Bobby Dazzler, both published by HarperCollins.

The Men From the Boys, a bestseller in 2002, is the story of Adam and Kevin, two working-class friends from a Bolton council estate. Bookish Adam becomes a poor boy made good, while for football-loving Kevin life is one long struggle.

As Stephen Pollard, journalist and former SMF education researcher, said after the launch of his first novel: "It's not the least of his achievements that his book does not read as if it has been published by the SMF."

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