Alan Johnson: From Rover to Royal Mail to radioactive leaks: he'll need all his renewed optimism

The new Trade Secretary tells Francis Elliott how he has returned in style to his old stamping ground, to be met with an overflowing in-tray
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The Independent Online

When Alan Johnson first arrived in the Department of Trade and Industry as a junior minister four years ago, he chose for himself a corner office with stunning views over Westminster Abbey. Arriving at work one morning, he found Helen Liddell, then his senior, "measuring up the curtains".

When Alan Johnson first arrived in the Department of Trade and Industry as a junior minister four years ago, he chose for himself a corner office with stunning views over Westminster Abbey. Arriving at work one morning, he found Helen Liddell, then his senior, "measuring up the curtains".

So it was off to a pokey little garret overlooking the fume-filled canyon of Victoria Street for Johnson, where he was left to dwell on the unforgiving realities of the Whitehall hierarchy.

Now risen to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Johnson tells this story to visitors to his present, sumptuous office. That he is prepared to do so is typical of the former union boss. He is self-aware enough to tell a story against himself - but careful to choose one that underlines just how far he has come.

Johnson's low-key, blokeish pragmatism helped win over Labour rebels in the tuition-fee battles last year, and he was rewarded with a Cabinet job at the Department for Work and Pensions. He was called to the DTI by Tony Blair at the 11th hour as the post-election reshuffle threatened to unravel, and won immediate approval by seeing off a daft departmental name change.

A month on, however, and Johnson is learning just how much "churn" his new position involves. "At the DWP there were two 18-foot gorillas in the garden - incapacity benefit and pensions," he says. "The rest of it was keeping everything else flowing. Here it's a different issue every day."

The fallout from the Rover collapse, the Royal Mail's plans for a worker buyout, and the looming trade war with the US over state aid to Airbus have been among the highlights of his first, hectic 30 days.

Towering over all these, however, is one giant question - probably the biggest of Labour's third term in office: will the Government clear the way for a new generation of nuclear power stations? The signals don't look good for the nuclear industry; Johnson stresses the need to deliver the existing White Paper on energy unveiled in 2003, as well as drawing attention to problems with waste and public confidence over safety.

"I don't think you can expect a [new energy] White Paper. We had a very good energy White Paper in 2003," he says. "What I am concerned about is that we focus on delivery and not churning out analysis all the time.

"The Prime Minister has said we will make a decision within the lifetime of this parliament on whether we go any further down the nuclear road. It would be a diversion if we moved away from the focus on renewables and energy efficiency."

Johnson is also candid about the impact on the nuclear debate of the official Nuclear Inspections Inspectorate (NII) report into a serious leak at the Thorp reprocessing plant in Sellafield. As revealed in this newspaper, 83,000 litres of spent fuel leaked unnoticed for nine months while workers repeatedly missed warnings. A preliminary report is due to hit ministers' desks this weekend, and the NII says criminal prosecutions remain a possibility.

"We have to wait for the report [on the Thorp leak] but it's one of the issues that militates against rushing too far down the road," Johnson argues. "The issues with nuclear are as fresh as they were in 2003: what do you do with the waste, is it affordable and who is actually going to build these new nuclear power stations?

"I just think it would be extraordinary if, a month into the job, I was drawing conclusions on such a crucial issue. Which is why I say the priorities must still be renewables."

If the new Trade Secretary is a mite tight-lipped on nuclear, he is passionate about wind and wave power, and is quick to point out the investment going into this area.

"The Danes stole a march on us because of the lethargy of previous governments, but now we've got 8,000 people working in this industry and it's forecast to rise to 35,000." He smiles: "I am told - and this sounds faintly rude - that last year was our best year for wind."

Britain might not hit its 2010 carbon-reduction targets, he says, but an update this autumn will show that it "comes close". How much more progress is made will depend on public attitudes to what Johnson calls the "aesthetic issues" of giant turbines on hills and at sea.

"People can't both want to head down the renewable track and then oppose its results," he says. "I actually think they look rather nice. Half this country was covered in windmills at one point. But it's no good the Government lecturing people that they have to like these. It's an individual responsibility not just a government responsibility."

By contrast, something that is remaining quite firmly in the Government's hands is the Royal Mail. As a former postman, Johnson might be expected to be sympathetic to the plans floated by Royal Mail's chairman, Allan Leighton, for a "John Lewis-style" worker buyout.

Interviewed on Tuesday, Johnson says he has not yet seen Allan Leighton's detailed plans ("perhaps they're lost in the post," he jokes) but that he is due to meet Leighton the following day. This weekend, a spokeswoman says the minister is still going through the details before delivering his verdict. It will depend on whether he believes they amount to a privatisation.

The former general secretary of the postal union explains: "The CWU [Communication Workers Union] was set up by people who believed in workers' involvement - the language at the time was workers' control but that's a bit off the agenda. The Post Office was one of the two industries that took part in the experiment of industrial democracy in the 1970s.

"I am interested in something that says, here is a way to give employees greater involvement. I am not interested in privatisation."

He can't say much about the Airbus saga (see Analysis, pages 6 and 7) other than that the company's bid for state aid is "in the sausage machine". On the report into Rover, he says simply that he expects the inspectors he appointed a few days ago to report in "between a year and 18 months".

In his first few hours in his new role, Johnson headed off a plan to rename the DTI the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry. But a question that has been festering for at least a decade still remains: what is the DTI for?

"It's a great department and it's a really important department," Johnson argues. "What's its role? Its role is supporting British business; it's ensuring decent standards in the workplace for British employees; it's about fostering science and innovation, and it's about ensuring fair markets.

"There's been a revolution going on here. I can't tell you the difference [there is now], having gone to two other departments and then come back - the amount of involvement by outside stakeholders that really works. We have non-executive directors, academics, trade unionists. It's part of the way this place runs now that they come in, have a view, and it really does make government work much better."

A former trade union leader presiding over a revolution in Whitehall. Who would credit it?


Born: 17 May 1950.

Education: Sloane Grammar School, Chelsea.

Career (1968): postman.

1976: Communication Workers Union, branch official.

1987-93: CWU, national officer.

1993-97: CWU, general secretary.

1997: elected Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle.

2001: minister of state, Department of Trade and Industry.

2003: minister of state, Department for Education and Skills.

2004: Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

2005: Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Interests: music, tennis, reading, football, cookery and radio.