Lucy takes her place at the dispatch box

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Opposition was low-key for David Blunkett's first speech to Parliament as Education Secretary. Frances Rafferty reports

Lucy, David Blunkett's guide dog, could be forgiven for trotting towards her master's usual seat on the Opposition benches on their first trip to the House of Commons chamber since the election: many MPs were also forced to check their steps after 18 habit-forming years.

When Lucy and the Secretary of State arrived for a debate on work, welfare, education and health last week, she had learnt her new route. But it must have been strange for her lying there, nostrils quivering to the strange aroma of Tories whose bottoms have hitherto graced the green leather benches on this unfamiliar side of the House.

Mr Blunkett relished his first speech from the Government's dispatch box. "I have the privilege of being the first Labour Secretary of State for Education and Employment for the past 18 years to stand at this dispatch box," he said, "and the first shadow Secretary of State for education since 1929 to make it to the Secretary of State's job."

Unfortunately, his old sparring partner, Gillian Shephard was not there to hear him. She, according to Peter Lilley who was standing in her place, was "temporarily suffering from antibiotics". But there were a few old friends. Eric Forth, the former Education Minister, who has not allowed election defeat to dim his taste in ties, was on hand, as was his colleague Cheryl Gillan.

Mr Blunkett said his job now was to raise standards, even if it meant making himself unpopular with children by increasing their homework. "I don't mind being the bogeyman on the government benches I " he said.

Mr Blunkett's team - Stephen Byers, Andrew Smith, Alan Howarth and Estelle Maxwell - sat by his side all trying (and all failing) not to look smug in victory.

The presence of Mr Lilley, one of the candidates in the Tory leadership contest (together with running mate Gillian Shephard), somewhat blunted the debate. Mr Blunkett was taxed on his ability to reduce class sizes. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) told him the money freed from assisted places would not be enough. Eric Forth asked him if he had noticed that some of the local authorities delivering the best results also had the largest classes.

But it was all rather low key. When the moment came for Mr Lilley to reply, he clearly had more pressing matters on his mind. "It was the Conservative party that lost the election, not the Labour party that won," he said. "It was a chastening rejection of a divided Conservative party: it was certainly not a ringing endorsement of the Labour party."

It was hardly a distinguished performance, including the somewhat bizarre remark: "Nobody can define the causes of crime, other than to say that crime is caused by criminals", when he was asked if there was a link between youth unemployment and crime.

For Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, it was a case of same old seat, same old job. But this time round things are much more chummy. Mr Foster and Mr Blunkett have in the past few years been a regular double act. The Dave and Don Show made many appearances at education conferences and TV studios. Mr Blunkett invited Mr Foster for tea so they could share views. Mr Foster thanked Mr Blunkett and asked him if he could bring his two new friends (Lembit Opik and Phil Willis, members of the newly expanded Lib Dem education team) along.

While Mr Blunkett can expect sympathy among the tea-cups, Mr Foster said he would continue to challenge him in public. He said that using money from the National Lottery for education could be the thin end of the wedge.

"We all recall that, under the Conservatives, schools became increasingly reliant on supermarket sales promotion gimmicks," he said. "It would be a sorry day if, in future, schools had to rely on the uncertain profits of gambling."

The occasion allowed Christopher Leslie, the House's youngest member at 24, to make his maiden speech. On the night of a thousand shocks, Mr Leslie's contribution was to unseat Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the influential 1922 committee. Sir Marcus made his maiden speech in January 1971, 18 months before Mr Leslie was born.

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