Blunkett is not the PM's creature;Opinion

8th January 1999 at 00:00
WHO was top of David Blunkett's Christmas card list? Not Chris Woodhead, according to received wisdom. Most reports say that the two can barely agree over the time of day, although the Secretary of State is stuck with the chief inspector because he has the backing of Downing Street and the Prime Minister.

Mr Blunkett is said to be the stooge for Mr Blair's education agenda - the Prime Minister uses the support for Mr Blunkett from within the party to make him the front man for an agenda no one else could sell them.

The received view, though, is wrong. Far from David Blunkett being forced to dance to Tony Blair's tune, many of the boldest initiatives have emerged from Mr Blunkett himself. He is the perfect salesman because he believes in the product.

That's why he is happy to work with Chris Woodhead. When Mr Woodhead's contract was renewed it was reported that this was another example of Mr Blunkett doing Mr Blair's bidding. The truth was the opposite. When the Secretary of State noticed that the chief inspector's contract was due to be renewed, he instigated the reappointment process.

They have had their awkward moments, but Blunkett and Woodhead are more or less united on policy. Their differences have been based on Blunkett's personal pride. Those who have worked with him chorus as one his deep sense of amour propre. Mr Woodhead has a natural ability to seize the headlines, and Mr Blunkett has sometimes resented the coverage.

Those who argue that Mr Blunkett is being led astray by Downing Street have a fundamental misunderstanding of the man. As he puts it in his autobiography, On A Clear Day (written before he was even shadow education secretary): "Recent research has shown that children's lack of numeracy can be put down to the fact that calculators have taken over from the use of their brains. Yes, I am a fundamentalist when it comes to education: I believe in discipline, solid mental arithmetic, learning to read and write accurately, plenty of homework, increasing expectations and developing potential".

This is the crux of the man. Education, for him, is about an escape from poverty, expectations and limited horizons. According to one senior Cabinet minister "this is where he differs from the Prime Minister. On policy, there's almost nothing between them. Blunkett's motivation is class-based. He hates the idea that working-class children should be denied a proper education. The PM's outlook is much more New Labour, and is based on ideas of 'the knowledge society' and skills shortages".

It's the combination of outrage at the injustice that denies working-class children the same opportunities as the better off, and a traditional respect for the basics of a good education that makes Mr Blunkett the powerful force he is. His own experience taught him the need for a grounding and confirmed his contempt for "progressive" teaching, He was horrified at the attitude of the principal of his last school: "His view was that exams were unnecessary, that they narrowed academic and intellectual development, and it was therefore a waste of time for pupils to study for them. Such an attitude angers me to this day because he had a PhD. I wonder how he thought he could become head of a college without qualifications."

Those who cling to the idea that Blunkett is Blair's fall guy misunderstand the dynamics. Blunkett has his own power base. Blair could sack a senior colleague such as Frank Dobson with equanimity. His status is entirely a product of his office. Blunkett, though, has the strength that flows from his hero-like status in the party. He is one of the few in the Cabinet who has the confidence to stand up to Blair on the rare occasions when he thinks it necessary. That, of course, means that he is fully behind the education agenda that he and the PM advocate.

Stephen Pollard is a columnist for the Express

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