All options open for the Cabinet Houdini

Education Secretary: A tricky spending round and the nursery vouchers scheme have put Mrs Shephard centre-stage again
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The Independent Online


Who is Gillian Shephard? After 45 minutes' interview it is hard to know. Is she the leftish champion of more public spending on state schools or the rightish proponent of radical and controversial schemes for vouchers and more Government-funded places in private schools? Does she want a Whitehall takeover or will the former local authority schools inspector be true to her past?

She weaves her way Houdini-like, through determined attempts to pin her down, with a lightness of touch that must be the envy of her male colleagues. Very occasionally she has to pause to construct a diplomatic reply. What is it like being in a minority of two (women) in the Cabinet? She bares her teeth. The gleam in her eye is unmistakable. "Debate," she begins, is conducted in a very male way. There is a delight in confrontation rather than in a cool examination of the issues but when it comes to it of course a sensible accommodation is reached." There is another pause. Then, as though she feels she has been unduly fair to the assembled Cabinet suits she goes on. "I always find the substance more interesting than the mode in which is it being conducted" - another pause, then - "that's my view, perhaps by contrast with some of my colleagues."

Translated, that presumably means that it is infuriating to have to listen to a lot of pompous men showing off and scoring points off each other when we should be getting on with governing the country.

Mrs Shephard's male colleagues are much in her thoughts at the moment. She is battling with Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, over public spending on education. But, whatever she thinks about their mode of argument, she is conventionally tight-lipped about the substance of her discussions. Education needs to be "convincingly" resourced. So will she settle without a direct appeal to Cabinet? "I don't know." Is she worried - as she locks horns with the Treasury over spending - that her party has been allowed to become too greedy for tax cuts? "I am absolutely certain that the Chancellor will not produce a budget that is not in the long-term interests of the economy. What he will do is produce a budget that does the right things."

The Prime Minister is backing her fight to make education a spending priority. On other issues, however, there are reports of differences between her department and Downing Street. A year ago she was saying vouchers were "cumbersome" and that opt-out schools seemed to be a secondary concern. Now she is running a nursery vouchers' pilot scheme and talking about ways of allowing all schools to become grant maintained.

Ministers are already consulting on a proposal from the Prime Minister to allow church schools to opt out without a parental ballot if their governors agree. "That could be an option for all schools." Mrs Shephard said. "The Prime Minister wishes to explore extending self-government. You can't look at self-government without looking at the function of local education authorities."

She acknowledged that the review was exploring whether the Prime Minister's goal of universal self-government for schools could be achieved by voluntary opting out or whether it should be brought about by Government fiat. "It is the case that to look at this means looking at other issues. One of the big issues is the role of local authorities. Another big question is that of parental choice."

Many believe that John Major has a more right-wing agenda in education than she would choose if left to her own devices. So is there a split? Is Downing Street or her department running education? The smile again. "There is not a cigarette paper between us." she says with a twinkle. "I do welcome the Prime Minister's involvement in education."

She says she no longer, if she ever did, has "Napoleonic tendencies"; on choice and diversity she is four square with Mr Major. As for vouchers, she speaks of them as though with the enthusiasm of the convert. What happens if the pilot due to start next February is a flop? "It won't be." But only three London authorities have signed up. "And Norfolk." she insists, though the county maintains it has agreed only "in principle." "In Norfolk parents will be enchanted to be in possession of vouchers that will enable them to shop around. Their children will have the right to three terms of education before they are five, whereas before they may have had one."

In short, she and the Prime Minister are united in the belief that everyone must get the best in education. In this country, she says, we have been embarrassed to talk about what we think education can do for a nation. For the first time, thanks to the vigorous controversy generated by the Government's reforms, there is a genuine interest in education in Britain.

"In France, it has always been possible to compliment someone by saying you are very well-informed or very intelligent. Such a compliment is only beginning to gain currency here. In the past, it was what you said to someone who you found hideous."

This is persuasive; but it doesn't answer the question of which wing of the party she is coming from. There are those who think that she regards as unrealistic the increasingly fashionable Tory objective of shrinking public expenditure to well below 40 per cent of national income. Not so, it seems. "I think it is realistic, but you can't deliver it quickly in a democracy like ours." Peter Lilley's achievements in "shrinking the base" of social security spending while continuing to help the most vulnerable, is "remarkable and rather unsung".

In general, though, doesn't she think that there is something in Labour's charge that the party has lurched to the right and vacated the "one nation" territory to the Opposition? Isn't the revolt which threatens Lord Mackay's divorce bill an example of the right-wing tail wagging the dog? Well, it would be "wholly inappropriate" for her to comment on divorce as the Lord Chancellor discusses his bill with colleagues. But, overall, John Major had set out very clearly in Blackpool "where he stands and where we stand". She adds: "Of course, one-nation Toryism is very important and he did put it at the centre of his speech.

But what he also made clear is that his views on Europe, on monetary union and a single currency, on a firm but fair immigration policy, might by some be labelled as right wing but they would also be labelled by our supporters in the country as very welcome."

Hang on. A firm but fair immigration policy? Hadn't she she been conducting a ferocious - comprehensively leaked - correspondence with Michael Howard opposing his plan to penalise employers of illegal immigrants? Again, the charming if, this time, slightly steely smile. "You must be talking about a stolen document."

Stolen or not, it had still exposed her strongly held views to the wider electorate, had it not? "I don't comment on stolen documents. It isn't a thing I do. What you can expect is that when a policy is being prepared there always collective discussion."

So there you have it - neither identifiably left nor right.