Norman Blackwell, the new head of John Major's policy unit, is an enigm a. Paul Vallely examines the man and the ideas he brings to the heart of govern ment
The Government, it appears, does not want you to know very much about Norman Blackwell, who took over yesterday as head of the policy unit at 10 Downing Street, a post which in the past earned its holder the tag of deputy prime minister. This is all that has officially been released about him: Norman Blackwell: age 42. Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association, 1973.

Graduated in Natural Sciences from Cambridge 1973; MBA Wharton, Pennsylvania 1975; PhD in Finance & Economics, Wharton.

Partner in McKinsey management consultants since 1984. Local Conservative ward chairman, Epsom & Ewell, in the 1980s. 1986-1987 took leave from McKinsey to work in Margaret Thatcher's policy unit.

Married, with five children. Salary as head of policy unit: £87,435.

So bald was the statement when it was released in December, and so sparse were the cuttings in the newspaper files, that the headline writers resorted to tags such as Norman who?

For once it was not journalistic hyperbole. The day before the official announcement, one of the private secretaries in the office of one of the most senior Cabinet ministers returned from lunch to find 13 messages on his desk. He sorted them into order of priority. At the bottom he placed the one which said: ring Norman Blackwell. Norman who? He did not get round to returning the call. It was only on the train home that, in the Evening Standard, under the headline "Major names new man to win election",he read, "John Major this afternoon picked the man to succeed Sarah Hogg as his top policy adviser. Norman Blackwell..." Oops, the private secretary thought.

Not that Norman Blackwell would take offence. He is a modest sort of chap, who has gone to some lengths to avoid high-profile activity. He also declined all requests for interviews in the weeks before he took up office, though that may be more to do withpolitical caution than natural modesty. Any tour d'horizon by the new policy supremo (who will draft the Tory manifesto for the next general election) will only cause unnecessary twitches to the Westminster political antennae.

So what is there to be read between the lines of the official biography? And what does it reveal about the thinking and future tactics of the harried Prime Minister?

Blackwell is a classic product of the Sixties meritocracy. Born in Surrey, he was educated at Latimer Upper School in Hammersmith, a direct-grant school in London, before winning a place at Trinity College, Cambridge where he gained a first in Natural Sciences and became involved with the student Conservative association. "He was a quiet character," recalls one contemporary, Chris Smith, now the Labour Party's national heritage spokesman. "He's likeable, open, upright; a cerebral kind of Conservative. He will bring a lot of intelligence and logic to the policy unit. What I'm not sure is how much political nous he's got."

"True, he doesn't have the saloon-bar touch," said someone who worked with him in his first period in the policy unit. "He's not good at knowing how a particular policy will play with Joe Public or how it should be presented - he won't be the one to say,in Denis Thatcher's constant phrase, "No, Margaret, that won't fly." But then, that's not primarily the job of the head of the policy unit."

Another, at the heart of Tory policy-making, says: "You've got to be very clear about what the job involves. There are any number of spin doctors - competent and incompetent. What we need are strategies which put us six months ahead of the political battle."

Norman Blackwell, they hope, is the man to provide them. His job is to set up a new team of Downing Street analysts to provide advice to the Prime Minister independent of the departmental civil service. Together they will formulate the policies with which the Tories will contest the next election. And his background in management effectiveness, they hope, will provide new yardsticks for improving the efficiency of government departments.

His schooling at McKinsey & Co, a top firm of management consultants, is one that directs him toward a mid-term approach - a sign, perhaps, that John Major is, rather optimistically, looking beyond the election and planning policies for another term. "His style is to work out what is the real issue, as opposed to what's been presented," says one of his McKinsey colleagues. "His manner is technocratic, advisory, classless and professional. He is straightforward, disciplined and methodical. He works hard at gathering all the facts - he's very fact-based. He thinks long before he speaks; in a meeting he'll sit quietly and then come up with an answer to the problem."

As head of the policy unit he will have pretty much unlimited access to the Prime Minister but, his friends say, the rest of us will probably hear little of him. "Norman likes life in the shadows; he's not a great one for the theatre of politics," said one. "He is quiet, rather cultured, well-read; he's not a drinking type. Socially he's retiring. He's very family oriented."

"He's quite shy," said another. "He is very clever; he got a first in natural science at Cambridge, as did his wife, Brenda, a charming woman who stays at home to look after him and their five children, but there is nothing intellectually pretentious about them." Family life centres around simple pleasures. Blackwell is a keen walker and an active amateur musician. He plays the violin with the Epsom Symphony Orchestra. His appearance - medium build, thin, with glinty spectacles, pin-striped suits and a rather serious manner - has prompted the jibe that he is a grey adviser to a grey Prime Minister. "He drinks, in moderation; he likes good-quality red wine," said one of his closest McKinsey collaborators, in an attempt to inject some colour. "He's a very decent sort of chap, but something of an anecdote-free zone."

"He doesn't have much small talk; it's straight down to business," says John Goddard, professor of regional development studies at the University of Newcastle, who served on an urban regeneration project with Blackwell. "He looks like a Treasury mandarin, but he doesn't lack the capacity to think and act laterally. He's a really top- flight consultant."

It was those skills that led McKinsey to select him when the firm was approached in 1986 by Brian Griffiths, then head of Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street policy unit, and asked if they could second someone who was an expert in management efficiency. He joined the policy unit and for almost two years worked on inner- city regeneration, housing action trusts, NHS reforms and measures to reduce long-term unemployment. He also wrote a critical study of what he saw as the Church of England's inability to rebuild family values.

His approach was that of a pragmatic free-marketeer, says Lord Griffiths: "He had a reasonably clear market framework - ideological is too strong a word to use. He was always interested in trying to solve problems. He always wanted to work with the grainof local government, with anyone on the ground who was enterprising and trying to make things work."

That Blackwell has been prepared to take the Downing Street post - and a massive pay cut from his McKinsey salary of around £200,000 - is testimony to his continuing passion for politics. Long after Mrs Thatcher fell from power, a signed photograph of her adorned the wall of his McKinsey office. "He's an instinctive Conservative," said one former colleague. "He has a social conscience - on cuts in public spending Norman will want to go gently - but his McKinsey background will tell him that it has got to be kept under control. McKinsey go in a lot for what they call overhead value analysis, in which you examine every element of a business and determine its cash value - if it is costing you more than its cash value you axe it."

Blackwell will, suggests Lord Griffiths, "take great interest in the committees which the PM has asked each secretary of state to set up to consider policy and report back by the summer. He'll want to have someone on each committee to co-ordinate that and shape its direction."

There are three other elements from his past that may prove touchstones for future policy. On railway privatisation, he wrote apamphlet a decade ago for the Bow Group, urging privatisation of British Rail, with a national track authority and franchised private- sector services - along exactly the lines the Government is pursuing.Presumably his advice will be that Mr Major should stick to his guns.

On Europe, he wrote a critical report on the Common Agricultural Policy during his last period at No 10. In general terms his views on Europe are "towards the direction of caution". It may be that his appointment, announced six weeks ago, indicates that John Major's change in approach to Europe has been under consideration for longer than this past week's apparently panicky shifts indicated.

Recently Blackwell wrote a McKinsey paper called Creating European Organisations that Work. The philosophy, says a McKinsey colleague, is instructive: "The approach was that you need to integrate some things and not others; you need to let things find their own balance; the solution should be neither wholly national nor wholly European; neither do you need the same level of integration across all aspects of an organisation." Such an approach could yield interesting results when applied to consideration of which political functions are best carried out centrally and which locally.

There is an interesting straw in the wind on the privatised utilities, too. When last at No 10 Blackwell argued for the privatisation of the utilities on the grounds that they would create in the regions private companies whose success would reflect wellon local areas and be magnets for regional growth, ashappens in the US.

"It was a very imaginative point," said Professor Goddard. "He was opposed to the idea that companies should get involved in the community for charitable reasons; they should do it for long-term business reasons. He took a long view of the responsibilityof the capitalist system. He's more in the centre than to the right of the party." If he holds to this position, it could have implications for the Government's attitude to attempts by the likes of Trafalgar House to buy up regional electricity companies and destroy the local identity of the utilities and their magnet effect.

"Overall he is good news," said one former Tory policy-maker yesterday. "His great strengths are his strategic grasp and that he is an exponent of the medium term. Both things are sorely needed by this Government, which is not showing signs of coherent vision or medium-term thinking. He's the man for the task."