Tongue and cheek: the real measure of Patten: This minister does have a tendency to behave a little strangely, says Fran Abrams

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A SENSE of the ridiculous must be one of the greatest assets a politician can have. Some observers last week thought John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, had taken leave of his when he posed next to a 10ft ruler to prove that he knew how many centimetres make an inch.

The photocall, a response to Labour Party jibes that a recent Department for Education advertisement showed a child standing next to an inaccurate measuring-stick, caused much merriment but received little coverage.

Two days later, Mr Patten tried again. He arrived at the Secondary Heads' Association conference in Bournemouth with the same ruler in tow, accompanied by two exhausted aides. He presented it to the members, possibly a little unwisely, as a means of measuring the performance of schools.

Bob Hargreaves, the headteacher of Harriet Costello School in Basingstoke, said the gesture was accepted amid laughter. 'It seemed to be taken in a fairly good-humoured way. It was one way of getting into the headlines, wasn't it?'

Mr Patten's political opponents were amused but not surprised by the gestures. He does have a tendency to behave a little strangely, they say. While most politicians revel in the rough-and-tumble of Westminster debate, Mr Patten often seems to take it personally. On the other hand, he is not afraid to hand out personal insults himself.

For example, even Labour's Dennis Skinner, who can give as good as he gets, must have been surprised to be told that one of his recent parliamentary questions had displayed 'all the intellectual coherence of Mr Blobby'.

Ann Taylor, the Labour spokeswoman on education, has been on the receiving end of Mr Patten's abrasive wit on several occasions, as has Don Foster, her Liberal Democrat counterpart.

'If the honourable lady were subjected to an educational brain scan, there would not be a flicker on the screen,' Mr Patten told the Commons last month. In the wake of a recent court judgment on RSI, he said that every time Mrs Taylor opened her mouth she suffered 'repetitive political self-damage'.

Mr Foster, the MP for Bath, has been described as a 'political pygmy', given a warning that 'unless he is careful, I shall pay a state visit to Bath and deal with him', and advised, in response to questions about the propriety of a Department for Education newspaper advertisement promoting opting out, that he should 'go away and grow up'.

Gerry Steinberg, Labour MP for Durham, also took the opportunity at education questions last month to talk about opting out. He was told that he was obviously incapable of asking 'a proper joined-up question'.

Mr Patten is not even afraid of insulting political pundits. In last week's Spectator magazine, he accused Hugo Young, the Guardian columnist, of sinking 'into Dave Spart journalism', and Peter Kellner, the Sunday Times polling pundit, of having 'a track record of prediction that is simply laughable'.

But some of his recent targets have been less elevated. At Oxford University recently, a student asked him to comment on the Prime Minister's intellectual ability in the light of two apparently conflicting statements he had made. 'I'd love to ring your tutor and get a read-out of your intellectual capacity,' was the response.

The incident did not increase the Secretary of State's popularity in the city where he was once a don and which borders his constituency. Neither did his description of the students' union president at Oxford Brookes University, who had visited his surgery, as 'some hopeless woman' who did not seem to have much to say.

But when the vice-master of Balliol was subjected to a burst of venom for his mild support of a group of student demonstrators, the knives were out. Both the junior and middle common rooms of Hertford College, where Mr Patten used to teach geography, called for him to be stripped of his fellowship of the college. When it came up for renewal last month, Mr Patten sent a message to the college's governing body saying that he did not want to be considered for renewal, thus avoiding the possibility of an embarrassing vote against him.

The recent events in Oxford were not the first occasions on which Mr Patten's constituents had been subjected to his unusual political style. During the last election campaign, in which Oxford West and Abingdon was regarded as marginal, some of his posters were torn down along with some of his opponents'. A few days later, half a dozen enormous posters appeared on key sites in the constituency. They read: 'John Patten posters have been torn down in this street. Your vote on Thursday will decide whether crime pays.'

Sir William Goodhart, the Liberal Democrat candidate, was upset by the incident. 'I was cross because he was clearly implying that we had deliberately gone out and pulled down his poster boards. I also thought it showed signs of panic.'

In the event Mr Patten was elected, albeit with a reduced majority; but some of his antics have led to more serious consequences. The chief education officer of Birmingham, Tim Brighouse, is pursuing a libel and slander action against him over a now-notorious Conservative Party Conference fringe speech.

'Birmingham put this nutter in - Brighouse,' Mr Patten said. 'He couldn't run a press conference . . . I mean, I fear for Birmingham with this madman let loose, wandering around the streets, frightening the children.'

In the same speech Mr Patten described the director of education for Kent, Roy Pryke, as 'deeply lippy', adding: 'He's on my list.'

Fred Jarvis, former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has launched a 'Friends of Tim Brighouse' legal appeal fund, which is well into five figures and which has received donations from as far afield as America, Hong Kong and South Africa.

'The response has been astonishing,' he said. 'I had a fair idea of Tim's popularity but I had no idea when we started this how much we would raise. We have received more than 1,500 letters in two months, each one containing a cheque.'

Mr Foster still seems to harbour some respect for Mr Patten, despite being subjected to numerous attacks.

'He's not really such a bad person, until he opens his mouth. I think he could now save face by keeping the lower half of it shut,' he said.

Mrs Taylor takes a more robust view. 'Mr Patten has always been strong on insult and weak on intellectual argument,' she said. 'If ever Mr Patten had anything complimentary to say about me I would start to worry.'

But Mr Patten is unlikely to change his ways. 'I no longer much care for what anyone writes about me,' he says in the Spectator, 'save for my dear wife in her diary and the Recording Angel in his.'

(Photograph omitted)