His biggest fight has only just begun

9th May 1997 at 01:00
At 6.25pm on May 2, new Secretary of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett strode into a roomful of expectant journalists. "This is the first time I have had a press conference since I was leader of Sheffield City Council that I haven't called to slag off the Government," he said with a broad grin.

Opposition habits die hard, especially for Labour MPs of Mr Blunkett's generation and older, who have waited so long for their first taste of power. The signs are that the new Secretary of State will not allow himself to be subsumed within the official machine but intends to remain his own man.

His first act at his dbut press conference was to introduce his permanent secretary Michael Bichard to assembled hacks, announcing that he intended to change the culture of the Department for Employment and Education, making civil servants more visible in the process. Although this is simply speeding up a process put in train during the past two years, Mr Bichard could not conceal a startled blink when the assembled hacks were invited to ask questions of him.

Press conference over, Mr Blunkett set to work in his office. Despite the rigours of a long election campaign run on as little as two hours' sleep a night, he is determined to get to grips with the department as quickly as possible and spent much of the weekend going through the accounts and meeting officials. When he went home to Sheffield to see his sons on Sunday, it was with a boxful of briefing tapes.

There is the sense of a man on a mission in a government with a mission. Work is already under way on the White Paper due out later this summer, although Mr Blunkett is relaxed about later changes being made. "I shall be saying that if any good ideas come up in committee, don't just vote them down," he said.

Officials have already noted his affability and common sense. "It's unbelievable, the amount of dithering that seems to have gone on here recently. Nobody seems to have made a decision on anything for about six months," was Mr Blunkett's typically blistering assessment after four days in office.

There again, this is a man who once got through a packed agenda at Sheffield City Council in just four minutes. How much of his drive can be attributed to his blindness is debatable, but the need to master complex briefs swiftly must have had an impact on his personality.

Mr Blunkett himself is anxious not to be noted for his blindness. In his autobiography, he wrote: "I count not being able to see as an inconvenience rather than a disability ... From time to time I am criticised for not being a spokesman for blind people, but it was not for this purpose that I was elected. What I can do, however, is to set an example and encourage others to understand that helping disabled people achieve true equality in practice is everybody's responsibility. "

Inconveniences include being trapped by bores at drinks parties, opening a tin of peaches instead of baked beans, or talking too much when silence would be appropriate.

His favourite, if startling, greeting is "How nice to see you", accompanied by a wolfish grin. In his first press conference he asked for it to be made known that he does not want to receive letters and submissions in Braille or on tape "otherwise I become the secretariat to my own personal secretary".

His blindness, however, may cut through much civil servant speak and departmental red tape. In the discussions between the DFEE and Millbank in the weeks leading up to the election, it was established that Mr Blunkett would require a taped digest of the day's papers in his official car at 8am, and his official Red Box would be filled with tapes on which were concise briefings from officials, followed by an adequate space for the Secretary of State's response. Waffle, fudge and prevarication will clearly be outlawed.

The layout at Sanctuary Buildings has been amended slightly to make Mr Blunkett's physical passage easier, and his guide dog, Lucy, is already a familiar sight for staff.

Richard Lane, the only blind press officer at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, says the organisation is delighted by Mr Blunkett's achievements. "It's brilliant for the profile of blind people. He's intelligent, down-to-eart h and articulate. It's very encouraging, and it does wonders to quell the stereotype that sighted people have of blind people."

Ask Mr Blunkett's allies what motivates him, and blindness is not mentioned. Michael Barber, the professor of education turned official adviser, says there is a genuine passion for education coupled with decisiveness and consummate political ability.

Another colleague cites Mr Blunkett's experiences and those of his children. Born blind almost 50 years ago, his autobiography recounts how he was sent to a specialist boarding school at the age of four, with his parents ordered to abandon him at the gate. His determination to get qualifications meant having to enrol in evening classes at a technical college to get a 2.1 degree.

His fight to improve his local comprehensive school once his sons were enrolled has fuelled his interest in academic standards, and he knows what it is to live in grinding poverty after his family was left on the breadline when his father died in horrific circumstances.

Euphoria over, it is now down to Mr Blunkett to turn Prime Minister Tony Blair's passion for education into a reality. The biggest fight of his 50 years may be still to come.

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