6th September 1996 at 01:00
Insiders at the Department for Education are getting a wee bit confused by the simultaneous games of musical chairs and revolving doors played this summer. The intention appears to have been to turn the department into the lean, mean fighting machine ordered by Brian "Demon Eyes" Mawhinney to attack Labour on that prime electoral battleground of education, but it's taken some interesting shenanigans to get there.

The new roving brief of Eric Forth, the department's very own Rottweiler, is only the most public case in point. He's been reshuffled back to schools, his old stamping ground, where he is best placed to be nasty to Tony Blair and Harriet Harman, the nation's highest-profile parents since their decisions not to send the kiddiwinks to the local comprehensive.

Perhaps even more interesting is the reappearence of David Evennett. Who? you ask. Well, in a past life Mr E was Parliamentary Private Secretary (a backbench go-between) to the doughty Emily Blatch, former education minister of this parish and a very tough nut indeed. His next PPS-ship, when Baroness B went to the Home Office, was for John Redwood, Welsh secretary and yet another right-winger. Sadly, with the Vulcan's leadership challenge, that post evaporated and Mr E decamped to do the bidding of Home Office Minister David Maclean.

And then came the call from Gillian Shephard, whose own loyal PPS, Anthony Coombs, was posted to the Whips' Office in the last reshuffle. Mr Coombs was an engaging right-winger: Mr Evennett is the same but probably even more so. Unlike Mrs S, he is Euro-sceptic ("but not on the loony wing") and holds views including the return of the death penalty for police killers and the privatisation of the BBC.

Mrs Shephard herself is not noted for her right-wing views , and her political adviser, Elizabeth Cottrell, was once heard dismissing Demitri Coryton of the Conservative Education Association as a right-wing loony (although he's probably further to the left than Tony Blair). Perhaps she was thinking of someone else?

Moreover, there was no great love lost between Mrs S and John Redwood. So why has Mr Evennett been selected for this key role at such a sensitive, pre-election time?

"It's probably a very astute move," explains one Parliamentary insider, who describes Mr Evennett, a Lloyds member and former teacher, as a likeable man whose views on education (pro some corporal punishment, probably pro-grammar schools as well) are not so right-wing as the rest of his portfolio.

"He should be able to give her a very accurate idea of the strength of feeling on the right wing about selection and so on, which will help her to fight her corner against the Number 10 Policy Unit. This way they get a foot in both camps, which they couldn't by appointing someone wringing wet."

Isn't taking on John Redwood's former sidekick likely to inflame the PM, who was reportedly less-than-pleased by Mrs S's lack of haste in ruling herself out as a leadership candidate last summer? Our mole thinks not. "Margaret used to exercise a right of veto over these appointments, but I don't think John does. But the Whips do make suggestions."

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