Not-so-dull Dorrell steps into the shadows

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Frances Rafferty reports on the new Conservative education team - appointed by the first Tory leader to go to a comprehensive.

Stephen Dorrell, the first Conservative to drop out of the party's leadership race, has been made shadow spokesman for education and employment. David Willetts and Angela Browning, both regarded as being on the right of the party, have been appointed to his team.

Mr Dorrell's appointment is seen as a sop to the centre-left in a shadow cabinet that has shifted to the Right under William Hague. It could be argued that after his successes as secretary of state at Heritage and then at Health, Mr Dorrell's career game plan went awry. He was forced to pull out of the leadership contest early and then threw his support behind Kenneth Clarke.

However, his track record shows he should be a robust opponent for David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, in the House of Commons. His failure in the contest is said not to mean that he is not well-regarded by both wings of the party.

Those who know him say Mr Dorrell belies his lugubrious looks and deny the charge by maverick Billericay MP Teresa Gorman that he is "seriously boring".

Demetri Coryton, chairman of the left-leaning Conservative Education Association, welcomed the appointment. Mr Dorrell, 45, had been involved in the early days of the association, but has had little to do with the group as his responsibilities have changed. He said: "When we polled our members he was the favourite for leader."

Mr Coryton hopes the changes will put an end to "the-grammar-school-in-every-town" policy pushed by John Major. The school Mr Hague attended became a comprehensive and although Mr Dorrell had a private education (Uppingham) before going to Brasenose College, Oxford, he is not expected to toe Major's ideological line.

His appointment was also welcomed by Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee. "I look forward to dealing with Mr Dorrell and have suggested an LGA delegation meets his new team. I'm sure he will pursue sensible education policies."

The job will be important as the Government has made education a priority. Mr Dorrell and his team will be expected to oppose an education Bill and White Paper on Lifelong Learning in the autumn and the Government's welfare-to- work scheme.

"Education will be a key area in Parliament and I'm delighted to be involved, " he said. "The Government aims to give LEAs a greater role in running schools - this is a policy I will fight."

Shadow chancellor Peter Lilley has been put in charge of a policy review and it is too soon to know what effect this will have on the party's education policies. However, his deputy on the review is self-confessed "policy-wonk" David Willetts.Mr Lilley used Mr Willetts as a sounding board for his proposed pension reforms when he was at Health.

Mr Willetts, 41, known as "Two Brains" because of his formidable intellect, was part of the team that drew up the Conservatives' manifesto. He is a former director of the right-wing think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, and supported Mr Lilley in the leadership contest Mr Willetts made his mark in the Treasury and a swift rise to great things was expected. However, the MP for Havant in Hampshire was forced to resign in disgrace as Paymaster General for his "dissembling" during a Select Committee inquiry into the cash-for-questions scandal. He was brought back into the fold by Mr Major and made chairman of the Conservative Research Department.

A Thatcherite and liberal economist, Mr Willetts is described by former CPS colleague Sheila Lawlor as a darling to work with. "He is very charming and entertaining. He can make an anecdote out of a set of numbers. He is quite brilliant, constructive and reflective," she said.

Educated at King Edward's, Birmingham, and Oxford, Mr Willetts comes from a teaching family and has two young primary-aged children.

The third member of Mr Dorrell's team is Angela Browning, 50. She supported John Redwood in the leadership campaign and earned notoriety in the run-up to the election by saying she could not support a single currency despite the official "wait-and-see" line. As a former junior agriculture minister under Douglas Hogg, her department had to deal with mad cow disease, tuna wars, E Coli, pesticide scares and abattoir scandals.

She showed her caring side when she sided with the Grundys, Ambridge's harum scarum family, in a dispute with their dastardly landlord Simon Pemberton. She has been described as "cheerful and efficient" and is on record as saying Shakespeare should have a central role in English teaching in schools. And after facing furious hordes of pitchfork-waving farmers, teachers should be no problem at all.

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