Moral Dorrell plays the listening game

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
As the party faithful set off for Blackpool Biddy Passmore profiles the education team vital to the Tories' future

In the run-up to the 1987 general election, the One-Nation Tories in the Shires were getting worried about the direction of the government's education policy. A bitter dispute over teachers' pay had been followed by proposals for grant-maintained schools and plans for an over-elaborate curriculum - "a lot of ideological stuff that had not been thought through" - in the words of Demitri Coryton, then as now a prime mover on the educational left wing of the party.

So they set up the Conservative Education Association, a One-Nation pressure group that has always been resolutely pro-comprehensive. One of the four MPs who helped to launch it was Stephen Dorrell.

Now Dorrell, two Cabinet posts and a crushing election defeat later, is the shadow spokesman charged with reshaping his party's education and employment policy. He is well-placed to conduct such an exercise. "Articulate and intelligent and basically decent and pretty moral" was one senior Tory's description. Only his sudden opposition to a single European currency, a stance assumed to have been adopted to boost his chances in the leadership race, makes some suspect his judgment.

Since taking the job in July, he has embarked on a round of meetings with the educational establishment, impressing with his open-mindedness (fans include Graham Lane, Labour chair of the Council of Local Education Authorities). He has fared less well in the Commons and the Tory press.

Now 45, and married with three small children, Stephen Dorrell entered Parliament as Loughborough MP at 27. After public school (Uppingham), he caught the political bug at Oxford, where he read law and became an officer of the University Conservative Association and chairman of PEST (Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism - the forerunner of the Tory Reform Group). He entered his family's industrial clothing firm after university, becoming a director in 1975 and chairman in 1984. He was selected to fight Loughborough, then a Labour marginal, in 1976.

After Dorrell entered Parliament as the baby of the house in 1979, he became an effective "wet" in opposition to Margaret Thatcher. He voted against tightening the immigration rules in 1979 and said that the party needed to be rescued from the hands of monetarists. He opposed Sir Keith Joseph's proposed increases in parental contributions to student grants.

Not until 1987 did he acquire a junior government post - as assistant whip - and not until Mrs Thatcher had gone did he get his first serious job, as financial secretary to the Treasury with the task of privatising as much of the civil service as possible. His first Cabinet post was as national heritage secretary, where he failed to shine because he could not pretend to be interested in his brief. However, he relished the intellectual challenge at the Department of Health, to which he moved in 1995.

Now he is responsible for a policy area on which even close friends cannot recall hearing his views in recent years. But his friend and fellow Midlands MP Peter Luff says firmly: "I know he was pleased to get the job - he thought it was an important job to do."

His public utterances have focused avoiding over-prescription by central government. He says a mininster should not determine how many hours children spend on their homework. But he also opposes returning more power to local authorities, which he thinks have caused many problems.

His reaction to the White Paper has been muted: comments about stealing Conservative clothes. However he has had a field day on proposals for student fees and loans, accusing ministers of "picking the pockets" of the most deprived.

Peter Lilley, the shadow chancellor, is currently masterminding a review of party policy in which education will play a central role. Mr Dorrell, meanwhile, has a more immediate task: to canvas the views of the education establishment and his 164 fellow MPs on the details of the White Paper proposals so the team is as well briefed as possible when the substantial Bill comes before the House this autumn.

One senior local government figure remarked that Mr Dorrell did not really need any policy for a year or two; he would be in a good position to attack proposals devised by Labour that could well prove awkward to implement in Government.

"All he needs to do is ask "how are you doing on class sizes?" or "how many ballots have there been on schools' status?" he suggested.

Mr Dorrell should certainly be able to put ministers on the spot. A formidable performer at the dispatch box, he is known for giving as good as he gets ("I've watched him tear people apart," says Peter Luff). It remains to be seen whether he can do so in the face of triumphant ministers supported by more than 400 backbenchers, when his own side is depleted and in disarray.

Tory inquisition, page 16

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