Byers surges ahead in race for top job

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Byers' market? The man who once named and shamed 18 failing schools is the odds-on favourite to replace David Blunkett as Education Secretary. Nic Barnard reports while Diane Spencer profiles the contenders.

ALL bets are off. If Labour is a dead cert for re-election on June 7, the bookies believe the next secretary of state for education is almost as predictable.

Ladbrokes this week offered 20 to 1 on that the Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers would take over at the Department for Education and Employment. The incumbent David Blunkett looks an equally safe bet to take charge at the Home Office.

In other words, a pound;1 punt on Mr Byers would reap just 5p in winnings - assuming you bet tax-free. Mr Byers, who likes a flutter, would no doubt recommend that you do. The odds on a Labour victory are barely any worse at 40 to 1 on.

Smart punters may choose to look elsewhere. And there are other contenders - chief among them Estelle Morris, Blunkett's deputy and widely tipped for the Cabinet after delivering on teachers' pay reforms.

But Byers is keen for the job. While Mr Blunkett is apparently already receiving Home Office documents and being quizzed jokingly by colleagues about what he will do about Ronnie Biggs, Mr Byers has been subtly declaring his interest in returning to the DFEE. He addressed the Social Market Foundation last week, ostensibly about industrial policy; to delegates, it sounded more like a pitch for the education brief.

"He seemed fully up to date on current DFEE thinking," one said.

Teachers may groan. Mr Byers was seen as Mr Blunkett's hatchet man in his year as schools minister after the 1997 election. It was he who named and shamed 18 failing schools within days of taking office - something he may come to regret.

He was also the public face of the Government's quest to bring the private sector into state education. Some will have shivered wen he said recently that modernising public services would be Labour's big second-term challenge.

But others think they can do business with Mr Byers who, after all, has the Prime Minister's ear. If he gets the job, they believe, he will have to change his tune. The talk of "zero tolerance" of incompetence will have to go. The big challenge facing any new secretary will be to lift recruitment - and that cannot be done by bullying teachers.

Much will depend on what happens to the DFEE. There is talk of splitting the department once more in two, which would boost Ms Morris's chances. She would be a popular choice inside and outside the department: observers say she has grown in stature in her four years in office. As a former teacher, she also has empathy with the profession.

But it's not the way of politics to keep people too long in a job they know about, and if Ms Morris is promoted, Tony Blair is likely to want to give her wider experience.

That creates a problem of continuity in a key department. Charles Clarke, now at the Home Office, knows the patch and is seen as someone that teachers can do business with - though he despairs over the unions, not least because there are so many of them. Some suggest Jack Straw, five years an opposition spokesman, in a straight swap from the Home Office, but this might look too much like demotion.

Weirder names have been thrown into the ring. Anyone for Frank Dobson? Leader of teachers' employers Graham Lane even has 50p on a rank outsider - David Blunkett. Mr Blunkett would have to eat plenty of humble pie after all his thinly-disguised farewell speeches. At least he's on record as recently as Easter as saying he has the best job in Government.

But if you want to live really dangerously put your hard-earned cash on the one contender that nobody has mentioned. A woman called Theresa May.

Blunkett's verdict, 19 Leader, 20

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