Closing ranks in the trenches

24th December 2004 at 00:00
It is easy to see why a minister of Charles Clarke's stature was needed to plug the gap created by the forced departure of David Blunkett. But why was David Miliband not moved up as Clarke's natural replacement? With just six months to a general election, the inexperienced Ruth Kelly will need all her reported intelligence to avoid banana skins and master the arts of working in Cabinet and running a department. Will policy be outsourced meanwhile?

With a vital Bill to steer through Parliament, not to mention the imminent White Paper on Tomlinson and a precarious relationship over workload to nurse, the new Year 8 in a trouser suit is going to need more than her legendary time-management skills. The boyish former schools minister was reportedly gutted, and understandably so, given his commitment to school improvement.

Was Miliband's manifesto-writing magic so compelling as to require his immediate recall to the Cabinet Office and Alan Milburn's election strategy unit? Such a posting would never have occurred if Blunkett had survived, so probably not. Was Ruth Kelly's record as a minister so brilliant that she had to be given the first vacant department that came along? Hardly.

So was it that Miliband was not thought up to the job - the job, that is, of promoting more parent-friendly reforms? The fact that heads and teacher leaders are so disappointed to have lost not just one but two ministers they regarded as partners, probably says much about the reason Number 10 ordered a change of leadership at education. With a spring offensive planned, ministerial fraternisation of this order was too much like the Christmas truce of 1914 for the high command. They would be playing football in no man's land next.

Whatever Ruth Kelly lacks in experience she makes up with moral fibre, by all accounts. She is said to have ruled out health on religious grounds.

She will find education is not a value-free zone either.

Was this young mother with a child in a London faith school seen as more in tune with working parents and other consumers of education than with the producers that Miliband courted so assiduously? Her arrival, fresh-minted from the office of Alan Milburn, reminds us of the disputes between Clarke and the election supremo over the presentation of education policy.

With crucial floating voters in mind, Milburn will not want to surrender such territory as school choice, discipline, privatisation and the independence to select or exclude pupils to the Tories. Miliband derided market solutions in education and was once dangerously pro-baccalaureate.

He was thoughtful - perhaps too thoughtful for Newsnight and the Today programmes. Has he paid the price for getting too close to his subject?

Ruth Kelly may prove to be her own woman, not Milburn's, Blair's, Brown's or the teacher unions'. Her first utterance shows where she is coming from (right). The education world may be rather different in 2005 than we expected a fortnight ago.

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