Our friend from the north

5th September 1997 at 01:00
The ambitious new school standards minister Stephen Byers, loyal Blairite and fellow member of a coterie of north-eastern Labour MPs, was introduced to politics at his grandfather's knee. Now he's in Whitehall, could education prove a stage too small? Jeremy Sutcliffe profiles him

Anyone seriously interested in the future of education or politics - or simply in learning the art of how to get on in life - should study the progress of Stephen Byers MP. Arch moderniser, skilled in the black art of media manipulation, effective manager of the political brief, he is nevertheless a Labour man through and through, a northern polytechnic boy made good. He knows how to organise, who to back and is always likely to be on the winning side. And he has all the right friends.

With Labour looking set for a decade in power, anyone tempted to indulge in political talent-spotting should look to the second tier of government - the ministers of state, the number twos to the big beasts of the Cabinet. To the likes of Peter Mandelson, the Svengali-like minister without portfolio; Alan Milburn, the health minister; and Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister. All three are in their early 40s, but have one thing more important in common: they are all north-eastern MPs. So is the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Byers is the first to deny there is a north-eastern mafia of ultra-Blairites operating at the heart of government (though he does admit to a strong bond between himself, the Prime Minister and a gang of fellow Newcastle United supporters). Nevertheless, in the years following Neil Kinnock's traumatic election defeat, and Byers' own election as the Member for Wallsend in 1992, Blair, Mandelson, Byers and Milburn have co-operated closely. According to one northern connection: "There have been very regular meetings between them. Byers was part of a group who saw Blair as the future and positioned themselves accordingly."

Being in the right place at the right time, backing the right people, espousing the right causes and ideas is an essential skill for any ambitious politician. It was something which Byers learned early, at his grandfather's knee. The Liverpool docker instilled in his grandson a knowledge of how to organise effectively, how to get things done in the Labour movement.

That is not to say Byers himself is working class. His father was a radar technician in the RAF. Young Stephen grew up in pleasant surroundings in Derbyshire and Cheshire, and attended Buxton County Primary and Chester Grammar School before going on to do a law degree at Liverpool Polytechnic.

He joined the Labour party in 1974 when he was at college and appears to have thrown himself into politics with a single-mindedness that has become one of his traits. The following year, he moved to Newcastle to take up a lecturing post at the local polytechnic, where he remained until his 1992 election success.

He became a North Tyneside borough councillor in 1980, was appointed chair of education and later deputy leader. By the end of the 1980s, he was an emerging star on the local government circuit, serving as national spokesman for local education authorities from 1989.

The 1980s were a hazardous time for ambitious young Labour politicans. It was a time of prolonged opposition, with the party bitterly divided between hard-line socialists (the Bennites) and social democrats. When Neil Kinnock became leader in 1983, many of the party's pragmatists - including influential figures on the left like Tony Blair, the newly-elected MP for Sedgefield, and David Blunkett, then leader of Sheffield City Council and a key member of the national executive - backed his plans to modernise the party. Byers was quickly on the Kinnock ticket and as early as 1980 was throwing his weight behind calls for greater democracy within the party. According to a colleague, he was an "arch pragmatist", even then.

His transition to national politics began with a spell on the back benches, where he made a string of probing attacks on Tory education policies. In early 1993, he played a major back seat role on the parliamentary committee scrutinising that year's Education Bill. John Patten, the accident-prone then Education Secretary, was the butt of a particularly effective assault - Byers quoted John Ruskin against him: "conceit may puff a man up but it can never prop him up".

Byers' performance and skilful handling of the media led to jealousy - and not a little suspicion - among Labour's front bench education team. Shadow Education Secretary Ann Taylor was already coming under fire for failing to land more blows on Patten. More to the point, she was also under pressure from party modernisers to adopt a tougher line on standards. It was all the more galling to supposedly Old Labour hands like Taylor that modernisers like Byers had come from the Left. According to one MP: " That is one of the features of extreme Blairism. If you are ideologically footloose, you are liable to change position remarkably easily."

John Smith's death and Tony Blair's accession accelerated Byers's progress. After serving a short spell in the whips' office he joined the front bench, taking the employment brief in an enlarged education and employment team, led by David Blunkett. After some evident doubts about his ambitious junior colleague, Blunkett appears to have forged a strong working relationship with him, appointing him to the key role of schools standards minister after Labour's election win.

As the new Mr Standards, Byers immediately set about making his mark. Within weeks of taking office he "named and shamed" 18 schools which had been under special measures and had failed to show satisfactory improvement. It was just the sort of attention-grabbing announcement you would expect from an ambitious politician - but is said to have caused David Blunkett some misgivings.

Byers now says it was the most difficult decision he has ever made. Since the announcement he has privately visited most of the schools - and will have visited all 18 within the next fortnight. It is, he admits, a bit like going into the lions' den; he's had to face up to some angry teachers.

"I can understand why people felt angry about it. But I think in a year's time those 18 schools will actually look back and say, well, it was bloody awful at the time, we didn't like it. But actually it was for the best." He is confident that, within a few months, all 18 schools will show real improvement. This is tough love in action; Byers plainly wants to play the critical friend, and is apparently brave enough to confront, and listen to, those people he hurts in the process. But it is also good politics, which plays well both with voters and Number l0. One insider says he is "an ambitious guy - and therefore does things that ambitious people do."

One of the features of Tony Blair's fledgling government is the freedom he has allowed bright junior ministers - like Byers - to take important decisions. And while a less confident Secretary of State might be nervous of this, David Blunkett is sufficiently secure in his position to give his Number 2 free rein.

On at least one occasion Byers seems to have acted as an outrider for further radical change. During last year's party conference, he gave a supposedly off-the-record briefing in a Blackpool fish restaurant to journalists, who duly reported that Labour was planning to sever links with the unions. Byers insists all he said was that Labour's relationship with the unions "would evolve and develop". But his apparent "gaffe" did him no harm - his admirers describe this as a classic example of a clever operator, clearly signalling the direction the arch modernisers want the party to take. "It would have done him the power of good with Blair," said one approving Byers watcher.

Besides his northern connections with the Prime Minister, Byers has his own hot line to Downing Street through David Miliband, the thirtyish wonderkid who acts as Blair's principal policy adviser. Through Miliband, Byers has access to another important ginger group of ultra-Blairites, a mixture of government advisers, think-tankers and new intake MPs. Byers, of course, is not unique in this, but he is plugged into all the right networks.

Perhaps one of the most revealing things about Byers is his open admiration for Bill Clinton. He believes history will remember Clinton kindly for having presided over a sustained economic revival and cut the number of Americans living in poverty from around a quarter (at the end of the Reagan years) to under 15 per cent. Equally important, he says, the President will be remembered as the man who made the Democrats a party of broad appeal and not controlled by vested interests.

While Clinton's private life has been the subject of kiss-and-tell revelations, Byers's own seems determinedly dull. He has a long-term partner, Jan, a lawyer, but remains unmarried and has no children. Asked how he finds being an education minister with no family of his own, he says what matters is to be a good listener - to pay attention to parents - to get the basics right and have no preconceptions.

His prime task for the autumn is to oversee the drafting of what could prove to be one of the key parliamentary bills of the first Blair administration. The new Education Bill will, he insists, be the most influential since 1944, setting the framework for schools for the forseeable future.

The Bill's centrepiece will be a new framework for schools, replacing the present system of county, grant-maintained and church schools with community, foundation and aided schools. Critics of New Labour, led by Roy Hattersley, maintain that this is merely a sham and that it will enable opted-out schools to remain at the head of a pecking order. But Byers insists that the proposals are no political fix.

Some of his own officials are doubtful whether it will be possible to draft effective legislation without concentrating rather more on structure than he would like to admit. "He has been surprised at the amount of time he has been forced to devote to structures not standards," says one insider. "He doesn't want to move the deckchairs around for the sake of it. But it's got to be done for the Bill. There's a certain amount of irritation there." Byers concedes the difficulty, but defends the approach as putting practical policy-making before ideological change. "What we are saying is you have got to have a standards agenda which will colour everything else, which will flow from it. But we recognise that within that context, then obviously structures play a part, " he says.

Byers hopes the Bill, which will be published in November, will be on the statute books by next July. After that, say his friends, he will be hoping to move to another portfolio, with his own department and a seat in the Cabinet.

How ambitious is he? Very. He is bright, personable (has a nice smile, improved since shaving off his "old Labour" moustache), and well in tune with the public mood (witness his recent, successful, attack on the BBC's Tellytubbies). He is a fluent and effective speaker. He has shown himself willing to take unpopular decisions and put himself in the firing line. Most importantly, he is unswervingly loyal to the leader. If he continues to be as sure-footed as he has been so far, say friends, he could one day hold one of the great offices of state, at the Home Office or as Foreign Secretary.

Could he go higher still? After John Smith's death, it is said there was a discussion among a group of journalists about whether Blair would emerge as victor. Someone changed the subject by saying: "Never mind that, who will be leader after Blair?" The reply was: "Steve Byers." "But surely," someone said, "Byers is older than Blair?" Age, however, (and it's only a few months) is unlikely to deter the ambitions of Our Friend from the North.

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