Should ministers really know it all?

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
ESTELLE Morris, the new Education Secretary, was soon under fire from the Chris Woodhead fan club for not being tough enough on teachers.

Melanie Phillips, the right-wing commentator, was scathing about Ms Morris's decision to appease trainee teachers by allowing them to re-take their literacy and numeracy tests until they pass: "What's the point of having an education secretary who doesn't grasp that a test that nobody can fail is meaningless?" she asked her Sunday Times readers, reminding them of Ms Morris's "embarrassing school record (A-levels failed)".

Another new minister, Richard Caborn who replaced Kate Hoey at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was severely castigated for his lamentable lack of sporting knowledge. He flunked all the questions on Radio 5 Live's Sunday Service quiz: he couldn't name the captain of the Lions, the England cricket coach or the three European golfers in the US Open.

Vanessa Feltz, in the Daily Express, took him to task: "How arrogant to pitch up for a radio interview about yur new appointment without even making the effort to look through your briefing notes."

She said his "devastating lack of knowledge" left Blair's other ministerial appointments open to doubt. "Call me old-fashioned but I prefer my education secretaries to have passed more than an exam or two."

But Roy Hattersley took a different tack in the Guardian. Mr Caborn "now holds the only government job whose incumbent is expected to have expert knowledge of their brief before they set foot inside the ministry".

He wondered if anyone expected Jack Straw to name all the EU prime ministers on his first day? Or Margaret Beckett to know about crop rotation?

"Luckily for her, she has not got off to a bad start as a result of a radio journalist asking her daft questions."

Lord Hattersley opined that hiding ignorance was an essential part of a minister's work, but "there is no easier way of looking a fool than attempting counterfeit knowledge which you do not possess". What's seven times eight, Mr Byers?

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