Never mind the spin, a fearless week leaves Frank still fighting

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The Independent Online
LESS THAN a month ago, he was the second Beveridge, the towering intellect who would revolutionise the Welfare State and confirm Tony Blair's destiny as a great reforming Prime Minister. Today, as he finally starts his summer holiday, Frank Field is back in the role of the outsider, a voice in the wilderness shunned by ministers and despised by New Labour apparatchiks.

No more ministerial red boxes, no access to Whitehall's research machinery, not even a chauffeur. Worst of all for this deceptively ambitious politician, no power.

Even by the breakneck speed standards of the modern political demise, it has been a pretty spectacular fall from grace.

This was the man who would, in a phrase that has come to take on a haunting irony for both him and his opponents, "think the unthinkable" on social policy.

After years on the backbenches and a lifetime working on poverty and benefits issues, his elevation to the rank of minister seemed to confirm the visionary spirit of the new Government.

He had the ear of the Prime Minister, with whom he shared a deeply held Christian conviction that the restoration of self-reliance should form a centrepiece of welfare reform. He was made a Privy Councillor, appointed to a key cabinet committee on long-term Government spending, and given the task of drawing up a Green Paper on benefit and pensions changes.

Feted by Left and Right for his forthright opinions and innovative policy ideas, there seemed nothing the man could do no wrong.

"He was like a child in a sweet shop," one colleague said. "For years, he had been Britain's unofficial expert on welfare and now he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually carry out his pet theories."

But as long ago as last year his enemies began talking about Mr Field's inability to come up with practical means of implementing his laudible ideals of cutting welfare bills and ending the dependency culture. Crucially, the Chancellor was opposed to many of his ideas on pensions and mean testing.

The briefing against him began in earnest this spring, with Alastair Darling's name presciently mentioned to those around him as a possible successor. It has since beome clear that his frequent disagreements with the Social Security Secretary, Harriet Harman, ran deeper than a mere personality clash.

He made it known to his close friends that he wanted "executive responsibility", a curiously arcane, Field-like shorthand for a Cabinet post. He wanted Harriet's job. And nothing else.

Already, it appeared that this slightly-built, diffident man was not simply a policy wonk or a benefits nerd with his head in the clouds.

For those who witnessed his bitter fight to rid his local party of Militant and fend off deselection in the 1980s and 1990s, it was no surprise that the Field steel showed itself. "He was, after all, politician first, policy- maker second," one MP said.

Yet when the Prime Minister rejected his plea to join the Cabinet, the minister notorious for his loathing of half-measures felt he had no option but to resign.

His shock departure last Monday ruined the Government's attempts to present the reshuffle as a nifty piece of management, and kicked off 12 days of mid-summer trouble that left Labour looking defensive and vindictive.

First reports claimed that it was an amicable parting, with Mr Field rejecting other jobs and being told he still has a direct line to Downing Street. But there were already semi-official suggestions that Mr Field had gone because he had "failed to deliver".

Two days later, he used an emotional Commons personal statement to accuse Chancellor Gordon Brown of frustrating his reform plans, singling him out as the main obstacle to his ideas for compulsory second pensions.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown walked out of the chamber as the ex-minister rose to deliver his statement. Downing Street denied Mr Brown had been obstructive and suggested Mr Field has been too theoretical, Mr Blair's spokesman saying: "It's time to get the job done and not just talk about it."

A couple of days later, Mr Brown went on the offensive, telling the Daily Mail that Mr Field's proposals would have cost the taxpayer "billions".

The mud-slinging reached its height last Saturday when the Prime Minister's official spokesman, attacked Mr Field's ability as a minister."Frank said he only wanted to serve at Cabinet level but the Prime Minister took the view that his talents were not best suited to running a department," he was quoted as saying.

Ministers and spin doctors were furious at a media blitz by Mr Field in the Sunday Times, the People and the Sunday Telegraph. In the Sunday Telegraph, he stated that Treasury plans for a means-tested minimum pension would "send out a message that if you don't save and instead spend all your money, the guaranteed pension will be still there waiting for you. It is a corrupting influence."

The negative briefings then began in earnest, with the bitterest exchanges since the Government took office last year. Mr Field was described as a "failed joke" and his ideas were "paltry and unpublishable".

This Monday, Downing Street attempted to distance the Prime Minister from the row. "We are not engaged in a war of words with Frank Field," a spokesman said.

But the Birkenhead MP was so stung by the attacks on his character that he decided to go on Radio 2's Jimmy Young Show and promptly dubbed Labour "spin doctors" as a "cancer" at the heart of Government.

"In the long run, you cannot run a Government like this. It's a cancer that will eat away at the heart of our very existence and undermine the way ministers behave."

On Thursday night, Mr Field made a keynote speech to the Social Market Foundation and immediately re-ignited the row over welfare policy.

He denounced Mr Brown's flagship policy for encouraging the unemployed back to work - the Working Families' Tax Credit - as a system designed to lead employers and staff into a "spider's web of dishonesty and corruption". Minister were furious, but simply wanted the row to go away.

Unfortunately for his opponents, Mr Field now plans a self-styled crusade, a "campaign" as he calls it, to ensure that the Government does not follow Gordon Brown's path towards greater means testing of benefits.

More policy papers are planned. Worse still, more revelations about the workings of Government, are also in the pipeline.

The most hectic dozen days of his life finally behind him, he will today settle down in his book-lined home in Hamilton Square, in central London, to catch up on academic papers and magazine reviews His "campaign" is on hold until the autumn. But he isn't going away.