The heat's on Timms but the audience is nodding

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
A STORM was breaking around Stephen Timms as he took to the stage to make his first speech to a teacher-union conference. But you wouldn't have known it, to judge by the reactions of some in his audience.

At least 10 members of the new school standards minister's 150-strong crowd were actually spotted asleep as he made a nervous debut at the Professional Association of Teachers' annual gathering in Cardiff. There was certainly plenty of potential for butterflies. Mr Timms, after all, had found himself plunged into controversy only that morning.

He had been accused of complacency and of downplaying the efforts of desperate headteachers after suggesting, in a radio interview, that schools' recruitment problems would be solved come September.

It was the new minister's third "gaffe" in the two months since he was appointed in the post-election reshuffle.

Previous statements suggesting companies could be given the chance to run school departments, and that children could start school at the age of six, had already produced headaches for his political masters.

So why was his audience so dozy? A glance at the list of questions suggested that only two delegates would take him to task on the shortages. Sure enough, the session passed with barely a raised voice.

Mr Timms did defend his earlier claim, saying that he recognised the pressures that "some schools, in some areas" were under. But barely a murmur greeted him.

Perhaps it was the surroundings - the windowless conference hall at the Hilton hotel, with its comfy chairs, must have hosted more than the odd snooze-inducing management seminar. Perhaps it was the time of year, as Cardiff basked in the heat. Maybe the timing of the speech, just after lunch, conjured up images of Spanish siestas.

More likely, though, was that this was PAT. The no-strike union, which is proud of its record for moderation, harbours few firebrands. Though there were plenty of motions this year attacking various aspects of the Government's record (and few of the off-the-wall variety which have enlivened past conferences), the questioning was unfailingly polite.

Then there was Mr Timms's speaking style. Although widely seen by the conference as well-meaning and genuine, he lacks Estelle Morris's gift with crowds.

Where his boss manages to persuade her audience that she shares their pain, even as she announces another exacting initiative, Mr Timms ploughs on with a relentless barrage of facts until his victims wilt in submission. If this was a conscious strategy, it certainly seemed to be working.

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