Alan Johnson: The return of Mr Smooth

Alan Johnson's softly, softly approach has even pleased his opponents, says Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

Very few people in the education world believe they are likely to get a raw deal with the accession of Alan Johnson to the post of Education Secretary in last week's Cabinet reshuffle.

Those who have had dealings with him in his previous incarnation as Minister for Higher Education remember him as an affable but tough negotiator; and many give him more credit than his boss, Charles Clarke, for steering the controversial legislation on university top-up fees through the House of Commons. It was his softly, softly approach with potential rebel MPs in private chats, rather than the sometimes more aggressive approach of Mr Clarke that won them round, insiders argue.

University vice-chancellors are grateful to him for securing them their extra finance, but even opponents of top-up fees were among the first to welcome him back to office. Kat Fletcher, president of the National Union of Students, said: "We are looking forward to working with Alan Johnson again, having had a constructive relationship with him in his role as Higher Education Minister."

Prime Minister Tony Blair is obviously hoping Johnson will pull off a similar coup with the flagship education reforms - which aim to set up a network of independently run "trust" schools throughout the country. There is said to have been consternation in Downing Street about Ruth Kelly's inability to sell the reforms to backbenchers.

The thrust of her arguments on the Bill - emphasising co-operation between schools and the setting up of federations of "trust" schools - was at odds with Mr Blair's speech prior to the launch of the White Paper preceding the Bill.

He claimed it was the most radical revolution in the way state education is run for more than 40 years and that it would give state schools more independence. The early signs this week were that Mr Johnson, a former general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, may have his work cut out trying to coax potential rebels into supporting the new legislation.

As one potential Labour rebel put it at the weekend: "It doesn't matter who the messenger is - the messenger can be as nice as pie and persuasive. It's the message that's wrong." The rebels are convinced that the reforms will lead to a two-tier system of education with new "trust" schools creaming off the brightest children.

This is in spite of a tough new code on combating selection by stealth produced by Ms Kelly last week as one of her last acts as Education Secretary. If there is unanimity about welcoming Mr Johnson's accession (one source close to the National Union of Teachers said his appointment was "great news"), there were murmurings about the scope of the reshuffle.

For the second time in 18 months, the Department for Education and Skills has seen both of its senior ministers taken away at the same time.

In December 2004, when Charles Clarke made his ill-fated move to the Home Office as David Blunkett was forced to leave the Cabinet, David Miliband, the Schools Minister, was reshuffled at the same time.

The duo had gained a formidable reputation within the education world for their integrity and ability to argue their corner in high government circles - and there were fears that two new appointees (Ms Kelly and her Schools Minister, Jacqui Smith) would be less able at that.

It would be wrong to suggest there was widespread sorrow at the departure of Ms Kelly - who was at one stage dubbed "the worst Labour education secretary since 1997" by the then president of the NUT, Hilary Bills. Reaction to her departure was most diplomatically summed up by Philip Parkin, general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers, who said: "Ruth Kelly had to endure a great deal during her time in office. Many of the issues and circumstances she faced weren't kind to her ... I hope she has a longer and more positive tenure in her new post."

However, there was considerable irritation within the education world that the same thing had happened again - with Ms Kelly going to inherit John Prescott's workload and Ms Smith becoming the Government's new chief whip.

The most open hint of this came from Chris Keates, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers - the union that has been closest to ministers, with its overwhelming endorsement of the new teachers' contract guaranteeing its members 10 per cent of time off from the classroom for marking and preparation.

"I regret that Ruth Kelly and Jacqui Smith are leaving the DfES," she said. "They have been staunch advocates of the social partnership which is continuing to secure benefits for teachers, headteachers and pupils. " Indeed, others went out of their way to praise Ms Smith for her work in securing concessions on the flagship Education Bill in a bid to appease Labour rebels. (One of the key changes will mean local councils are allowed to bid to build new schools - barred under Mr Blair's original White Paper.)

They argued that - while they had no wish to harm her career options - the ideal pairing would have been to have kept her as Schools Minister helping to steer the controversial legislation through the Commons with Mr Johnson taking the lead role in the department.

The double switch, they argued, had more to do with Mr Blair's attempts to save his own skin through the reshuffle than a desire for good governance at the DfES. Ms Smith's successor is Jim Knight, the former Minister for Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity. He is a high-flyer in political terms. The former manager of a publishing company was only elected as MP for Dorset South for the first time in 2001.

He was parachuted into the hot seat for the first time on Tuesday to take over Ms Smith's work on the Bill.

Whether the new team will be successful in obtaining more Labour support for the education reforms remains to be seen. But it may have more to do with the way MPs view Tony Blair's attempts to stay in office than the negotiating skills of the former postman-cum-trade union general secretary who has inherited the mantle of Education Secretary.

The CV: Name: Alan Johnson

Age: 56

Education: Sloane Grammar School, Chelsea.

Ruskin College, Oxford

Family: Married to Laura Jane Patient, one son. One son, one daughter (one daughter deceased) by first marriage

Employment: Postman, 1968.

National Officer, Union of Communication Workers 1987-93.

General Secretary, UCW 1993-5

Joint General Secretary, Communication Workers' Union, 1995-7.

MP for Kingston-upon-Hull and Hessle 1997-

Paymaster General, 1999

Under Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry, 1999-2001.

Minister for Higher Education, 2002-4.

Work and Pensions Secretary, 2004-5.

Trade and Industry Secretary, 2005-6.

Education Secretary, 2006

Hobbies: Music, tennis, reading, football, cookery, radio RG