Diary

9th August 1996 at 01:00
At least one bod in the Department for Education and Employment is going to be rubbing his hands together in glee and cracking open the champagne when the general election is announced.

Obviously it's not a politician, at least one of whom - Eric Forth, to be precise - has been busy finding himself a new, safe-ish seat after the Boundary Commission did for his current one.

The joyful escapee is one Jim Coe, who is taking early retirement on the back of the restructuring of the department into one happy ministry but who was persuaded by Gillian Shephard to stay on until polling day.

Jim Coe? Must be important if you've never heard of him. Well, yes: Mr Coe is the DFEE's top spin doctor, a greying chappie to be seen at the side of Mrs S during press conferences and the like.

And, yes, he is important: policies that have been months in the preparation have been known to bite the dust if the director of information can't see a way of selling them to the general public, no doubt to the carpet-chewing rage of the officials involved.

But, on this subject, as every other, Mr Coe is discreet. "We have to give advice to ministers without fear or favour. You have to ensure you don't get too close to it. I don't work, as the officials do, week after week, month after month, developing policies. I don't get close to it."

So things don't get tense, then? "Sometimes there's heated debate before it is decided which option is going to be chosen. I think in most cases it looks worse on the outside than it is in practice. Obviously, there are occasionally things which cause vehement disagreement but, in the main, things are solved amicably."

So, after a meeting goes ballistic in Sanctuary Buildings, the politician wins? "Ministers win but not because they take a bloody-minded decision to do it anyway; they win because they set the agenda," explains Mr Coe in best Yes, Minister style. "Officials know there are broad parameters. Occasionally officials will be very outspoken but that's what Ministers expect. They don't want people saying yes, yes, yes." No?

Anyway, Mr Coe says that, at 54, he is not leaving as a result of one amicable dispute too many; rather a combination of attractive terms for early retirement resulting from the merger and a feeling that having been at Sanctuary Buildings for the whole of the decade (he arrived with John MacGregor from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries) he had been in the jobtoo long.

However, his career appears to have been anything but dull. Perhaps, like a lightning rod, he attracts the sort of events that spell good stories for journalists and trouble for governments.

He was deputy press secretary under the redoubtable Bernard Ingham to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s during the fun and games over Westland, Libya, South Africa and the commercial takeover of British Leyland. "That was one of the most exciting times. She was clearly quite a dramatic lady to work for and intensely loyal to her staff."

Then to MAFF in time for the joys of Edwina Currie and salmonella in eggs. "The wives of some of the poultry producers used to ring the press office because the public enquiry lines were jammed, hold the telephone out and say, 'Listen to the sound of my husband slaughtering birds'. Then BSE started. " Oh, yes.

And his time at Education has been anything but peaceful, especially in the days of Kenneth Clarke and John Patten? Official discretion floats silently down the telephone line.

So what does the future hold apart from the usual consultancies? Quake in your boots, ex-ministers of this parish: he's saving all the best tales for a book.

"It won't be factual, although it will deal in a fictional way with some of the things I have seen. Otherwise, you'll have to wait and see."

How long, we wonder? Has Mr Coe already laid a quiet bet on his retirement date - namely, the time of the next general election?"I promise I've got no more idea than you when it will be. But I've probably got nine months to go yet."

The annual A-level furore aside, there is little for politicians of an educational bent to do in summer. Gillian Shephard has made for her French holiday cottage, while David Blunkett has already returned from a fortnight in Spain with his two sons and is reading up on his autumn offensive.

No doubt Sir Malcolm Thornton, chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Education, is planning some equally restful activities. "Actually I'm putting up some shelves and reorganising the staffroom in my wife's school. Last year I built a counter in the secretary's office," he confides.

Sir Malcolm - who seems about to acquire a reputation as a subversive with a hammer drill - thinks his activities at Great Meols primary school in the Wirral are an eminently useful way for the select committee chairman to spend his hols.

"It's nice because my wife, Rosemary, is in the school and I like DIY. And, quite frankly, the budget wouldn't permit it to be done otherwise."

The energetic Steve Byers - apparently one of Labour leader Tony Blair's newly identified Darlington Mafia - may be preparing to let power go to his head as the just-promoted spokesman on industrial relations.

Forced by the tube strike to tramp from north London to Paddington Station in order to catch a train to the Professional Association of Teachers' annual conference, he was heard to mutter: "There may be a stiffening of the Labour line on this issue."

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