"It's one thing having a scorched-earth policy," said one minister with previous experience of working with John Reid, as he watched the new Home Secretary's aggressive debut. "It's another when you reverse back over the terrain, prop the charred bodies up and ask them to carry on with the job."
Following the lead given by Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, Reid took pre-emptive abuse of the Home Office to an extreme when he appeared before MPs on Tuesday. He dictated his views of his department's immigration service straight into the books of political quotations: "Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it's inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management, systems and processes."
The face of Sir David Normington, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, sitting beside him, spoke volumes in its nearly successful inscrutability. It is unusual, not to say high-risk, for an incoming minister to introduce himself to the civil servants who have to deliver urgent and difficult reforms by saying publicly that they are completely hopeless.
Reid's tactic carries other risks because the Prime Minister's line is that great progress has been made in the past nine years. Two years ago, Blair said that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate - the part of the Home Office that Reid described as so comprehensively inadequate - had been "transformed". The gap between Reid's words and Blair's provided an easy target for David Cameron, the Conservative leader, at Prime Minister's Questions - while Labour MPs sat gloomily silent again.
Yet it was Reid's reputation for calculated aggression that made Blair summon him when the foreign prisoners' scandal swallowed up Clarke. In seven jobs since he joined the Cabinet seven years ago, Reid has proved the toughest of the Prime Minister's allies. But that aggression, and an unswerving sense of his own importance, has made enemies too. Many of his own civil servants may now join the ranks of those wanting him to fail in this new hazardous assignment.
In Cabinet he shares with John Prescott, Alan Johnson and Hazel Blears the distinction of unambiguously working-class origins. His father was a postman, and he left school in Coatbridge, east of Glasgow and next door to his present Airdrie and Shotts constituency, to work as a labourer and then an insurance rep. Politicised by the poverty he saw knocking on doors in Glasgow, he joined the Labour Party and took an Open University course.
He went to Stirling University to study history at the age of 25, where he switched to the Communist Party and became a student politician. The doctor title that he tried to drop when he was Health Secretary derives from a PhD on the slave trade in 19th-century Dahomey. It began as a Marxist analysis, but by the time he finished it, Reid had become disillusioned by Communism and rejoined Labour. "I used to believe in Santa Claus," he says dismissively of that period of his life, but it has left him with a characteristic intellectual style.
It was a style that commended him to Neil Kinnock, who hired him as a speechwriter when he became Labour leader in 1983. He was, therefore, an ideologue of Labour's modernising project from the start, a Blairite before Blair. However, he was slow to reach the front rank when the project reached fruition with Blair's election as leader 11 years later. Partly this was because he had personal demons to fight and personal grief to overcome. In the hiatus between Kinnock and Blair, John Smith was the making of Reid. Smith ordered him to choose between alcohol and a front-bench career. Late nights and foul-mouthed rages were blunting his incisive political judgement. Reid gave up drinking completely. Four years later, Cathie, his wife of 29 years and mother of his two sons, died of a heart attack.
Since then, and since he joined the Cabinet in 1999 at the age of 52, his life has been remade. In 2002 he married Carine, a Brazilian film-maker. And he gave up smoking a year later. Setting a good example as Health Secretary was less important than his new life: "I was starting a new phase of my life with a new partner. I recognised that that period would be a hell of a lot shorter if I didn't kick the habit." Although he turned 59 three days after he became Home Secretary earlier this month, he still looks younger than he did 12 years ago.
His ambition, once dulled by alcohol, burns as brightly as ever. As a fierce defender of the Iraq war in particular, and of liberal interventionism in general, he could be Foreign Secretary, but Blair's needs of the moment have been elsewhere. And his clear blue eyes are still on the top job. That may be a bridge too far: one of the few opinion polls to ask about him at all, in January last year, found 2 per cent of the public thought he would be the best choice for Labour to succeed Blair as prime minister. Yet Reid's ambition is taken seriously by the man named by 45 per cent in that same poll, Gordon Brown.
The ferocity of the guerrilla war between Reid and Brown intensified sharply this month. Reid's supporters mocked Brown's call last week to "broaden the New Labour coalition". One MP said: "That's a funny progressive consensus, stretching from the Daily Mail to Dave Prentis [leader of Unison, the public sector union]."
The insults are returned with interest. A Brownite MP said last week: "Gordon doesn't like him because he thinks he's intellectually pretentious with nothing to back it up. He's the luckiest man in politics because he's a Brown enemy in the right place at the right time."
Brown's supporters are scathing about Reid's effectiveness as a departmental manager. They say that he has turned every department he has led into a "glorified press office" for one J. Reid. But no one accuses him of being lazy or careless either. Although he has never been in one job long enough for a real track record, his 23 months at Health suggest that he can get a firm grip on change in a large and complex organisation. His switch of two ministers, putting the Blairite former management consultant Liam Byrne in charge of immigration and shifting Tony McNulty to the police, was a do-or-die decision. It will certainly make or break Byrne's meteoric career (he came into the Commons in a by-election only in 2004). But what a fellow-Blairite minister describes as the Chancellor's "search and destroy" forces are out to get Reid; and, while his brutal handling of his own mandarins could send a sharp signal through the machine, the hostility of the civil service could rebound to destroy him.
In any case, his permanent secretary, who moved to the Home Office from Education because he got on well with Charles Clarke, is a suave bureaucrat rather than a tough administrator who will chase down every last mislaid foreign prisoner. Above all, Reid is at the mercy of events overwhelming a dysfunctional Home Office. The odds are stacked against him; but if he survives, he will finally achieve what has been denied him so far: a settled reputation as a statesman.Reuse content