Saturday Profile Baroness Symons: Labour's peerless performer

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THIS MORNING, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, having returned last night from a ministerial trip to Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles, is on her way to Cardiff to put the final touches to preparations for the European Council, which opens on Monday and marks the climax of Britain's six-month presidency of the EU.

The 47-year-old Foreign Office minister, accused with cautious precision last week by the Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard of having "on the face of it, misled the House of Lords", was months ago personally put in charge by Tony Blair of the projection, protocol and stylistic detail of the international summits Britain has hosted in the first half of the year. It is a small but significant sign of the trust the Prime Minister places in her, a mere Parliamentary Under Secretary. It also suggests that it may take a lot more than the poorly-handled Sandline affair to dislodge her.

For now, however, the schadenfreude that has attended her presence in the eye of the Arms to Africa storm is given all the more piquancy by the fact she used to be, as one of the more quoted union leaders in Britain, a valiant defender of civil servants against Tory ministers who, as she once put it, were "quick to take the credit and slow to take the blame". And since it was the evidence of Sir John Kerr, the Foreign Office Permanent Secretary, that she had been given information about the Customs investigation into Sandline which she didn't pass on to her fellow peers, it looks as though she could yet be felled by one of those very mandarins she used so zealously to represent. What, in short, could be a better story line - and who a better star - for a first-class Whitehall soap opera?

Or so it seems. Much of the publicity Liz Symons has attracted this week has fostered the image of a Chanel-clad, politically weightless New Labour princess, who has moved relentlessly upwards thanks to a heady mixture of accident of birth, skilful networking and undoubted sexual magnetism. The reality is a lot more interesting.

It's true that Elizabeth Conway Jenkins was born into the mandarinate, in that her father Ernest was a fiercely bright, chess-playing meritocrat who rose from being an assistant tax inspector to become Director General of the Board of Inland Revenue. But any idea that she jumped on to the Labour bandwagon just at the right moment is wide of the mark.

She has been a party member for 20 years or more. James Callaghan, who began his working life as a tax officer, knew her father well. Her mother, a Welsh miner's daughter, was a friend through London Welsh circles of George Thomas, the MP for Tonypandy who became Commons Speaker. She went to Putney High School where she overlapped with Virginia Bottomley.

She took a first in history at Girton and signed up to do a graduate dissertation on 14th century Sussex before deciding she had been at university long enough and joining the civil service as a fast-track administrative trainee. As a civil servant, she worked for the last Labour government in the Department of the Environment on the controversial Community Land Bill. But then, in 1977, she made a surprising career change and joined (just as the young James Callaghan had done 40 years earlier) the Inland Revenue Staff Federation as an assistant secretary, negotiating the pay and conditions of trade union members in the Revenue.

She became a union star, and not just because she was a flash of glamour amid the sober suits of the tax-collecting classes. The burden of sustaining the bruising civil pay dispute which preoccupied the Thatcher government for five months in 1981, fell especially on tax offices, and she was dispatched to one of the main centres, Shipley in Yorkshire, to run the strike round the clock. She handled local press and television with flair, but she spent more time on the more mundane and vital tasks of organising picket rotas and handling hardship cases.

Then in 1989, having risen to be the IRSF's deputy general secretary, she was invited to take on the job of general secretary of the First Division Association. The FDA was, to put it mildly, an unusual trade union. Its members were the brightest and the best of the civil service. A majority of Permanent Secretaries, then as now, were members. And above all it was a potential player in the business its members were in.

Symons saw to it that the FDA played that role as none of her predecessors had quite done. She first set energetically about the task of improving the pay and conditions of her members. But then she began to respond to growing worries about the perceived threat to their political neutrality posed by the Thatcher style of government.

The FDA's general secretary became a convenient unofficial channel for the concerns of some of Whitehall's most important practitioners. It produced its own code of ethics as a first step towards the statutory rewriting of civil service rights to neutrality. According to Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at London's Queen Mary and Westfield College, a Symons fan, and the country's leading Whitehall watcher, she and Giles Radice, then the chairman of the Public Administration Commons Select Committee, ushered in what amounted to "an important change in the British constitution. This was very much hers. She was effective and convincing".

In retrospect her championship of political neutrality was made, says Hennessy, a little more awkward by her acceptance of a Labour peerage from Tony Blair in 1996. But she immediately gave her notice in at the FDA and prepared to becomes a backbench peer. Without any promise of a ministerial job.

She also made what turned out to be important party connections in her period in the FDA. Jonathan Powell, now Blair's Chief of Staff, held office in the Diplomatic Service Association, the FDA's Foreign Office arm. Peter Mandelson became one of two backbench advisers to the FDA between 1992 and 1994 - extending his own range of senior civil service contacts in the process.

And Philip Bassett, the distinguished labour and industrial journalist, and Symons' partner of 17 years, now playing a key strategy and communications role at No 10, had developed a close friendship with Blair during his period as employment spokesman.

But none of this had much to do with Symons' rapidly rising profile. At a time when television producers were crying out for articulate, presentable women to join male-dominated panels, she was a natural as a liberal, moderate- minded critic of the Tory government. She became a Question Time regular.

Her home life - she and Bassett have one son, James - rather undermines the image of the ruthless professional on the make. In January 1992, Bassett was diagnosed as having leukemia. It was an appalling time for both of them. For months, Symons visited him three times a day in hospital, juggling job, child and what Bassett believes was her utterly indispensable role in nursing him to recovery. He has since told friends that, medical care notwithstanding, he simply does not believe he would be alive today if it wasn't for her.

Nowadays, they entertain handsomely at their mansion flat in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral and in their small weekend cottage near Hungerford. Symons is an accomplished cook and keen gardener with catholic reading tastes from historical biography to PG Wodehouse.

None of these pleasures come quite so easy, however, now she is a minister. At the Foreign Office she has been a doer. Having established that no minister had ever met the families of the nurses imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, she promptly did so. Whatever the rights and wrongs of her turf war with Clare Short, it was she, as the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Caribbean, who first went to Montserrat. She was formidable, according to fellow ministers, at trying to secure some money for relief.

One of the problems of being a Foreign Office minister in the Lords is the daunting brief of being required to speak and answer questions on the entire range of business.

For all modern ministers, the volume of paper and the speed with which it arrives is huge. For a junior spokesman in the Lords, it is correspondingly worse. Despite this, Symons is widely regarded as having been, in Peter Hennessy's own words, "a very good Foreign Office minister". No unqualified fan, to put it mildly, of New Labour, Hennessy says: "I hope she survives. She is a good and intelligent woman who has fallen among the flighty and heavily spun."

The current enquiry will have to reach its own conclusions, but Hennessy adds: "My very powerful instinct is that she is just not the sort of person who would deliberately set out to mislead parliament."