Cult bedevils Kelly's first days

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Ruth Kelly wanted her first television interview, on Sunday's Breakfast with Frost, to focus on her school discipline proposals and her response to Mike Tomlinson's proposed curriculum reforms.

But The Times aside ("We'll keep A-levels, says Kelly"), the press were more interested in her links with the conservative Catholic organisation, Opus Dei, which plays a sinister role in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

"My links to the Opus Dei sect, by Ruth Kelly" promised the Daily Mail, while her first newspaper interview - with the Mirror - was billed as "Kelly on her links with secretive society".

But the Telegraph reported "Opus Dei will not limit me, says Kelly", noting her acceptance of collective cabinet responsibility on policies which were not free vote "conscience issues". Ms Kelly told Frost that Opus Dei, with 500 British members, gave her "spiritual support", but pleaded privacy when asked if she was a member.

However, this was also a much more confident and fluent performance than her Commons education questions debut last Thursday. In the House, Ms Kelly relied too heavily on the jargon-ridden answers prepared by her civil servants - full of what higher education minister Kim Howells called "hideously opaque language".

"Gosh, she was poor," said the Mail's Quentin Letts, while Jasper Gerard in the Sunday Times added "Cute Kelly's first task is to teach herself English" (are male ministers ever "cute"?).

Even then, Ms Kelly was dogged by Opus Dei, whose members apparently wear a spiked hairshirt each day. "Minister for flagellation and spiky garters" leered the Independent's Simon Carr. Her short hair was also up for grabs.

It was, the Mail's Geoffrey Levy assured us in two gossipy pages, "a subliminal message to millions of other women that she is too busy to have long hair because it requires so much care".

Perhaps Christina Odone came closer to the truth in the Observer: "Opus Dei in government may be new, but prurience about good Catholic girls is as old as the hills."

Yet, with just over three months until a general election, Ms Kelly must hope she can now focus on education, having dealt with Opus Dei. Otherwise, the youngest woman cabinet minister - at 36 - may become the shortest serving education secretary too.

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