New Labour's Spokesfolk: Who hits your snooze button?

Wheeled out for the 'Today' programme, it was Dawn Primarolo's turn to spin for Labour yesterday. But which minister is the best - and most irritating - mouthpiece for team Blair, asks Terry Kirby
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Tessa Jowell

Age: 58

Position: Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

CV: Became an MP in 1992 and has represented Dulwich and West Norwood since May 1997. Joined Shadow Cabinet in 1995 and was given current job in 2001. David Mills, her husband, a corporate lawyer, is facing tax evasion and money-laundering charges in Italy.

Why she is called upon: Jowell is seen as being among the more human, "user-friendly" ministers. The vocal style is of the warm and caring variety, a verbal hand gently laid on your arm, exuding sympathy.

Best example of style: In an intimate chat with The Daily Telegraph in 2002, Jowell welcomed the reporter with air kisses and "girlie gossip". During the interview, she said: "I think there's an increased appetite for spirituality following 11 September - people found a lot of comfort in art, music and museums... I think there's a fantastic hunger for it at the moment."

Simon Carr's verdict: After a long period of uselessness she came to life and reduced Jeremy Paxman to silence. It was the subject closest to her heart, defending the Blairs (Cherie, in this case). She was in charge of exempting Formula One from her ban on tobacco advertising. Was Bernie Ecclestone's cheque anything to do with her U-turn? No, it was entirely Tony "pretty straight" Blair. She was his spoon.

John Reid

Age: 58

Position: Defence Secretary

CV: A former Communist, Mr Reid was a political adviser to Neil Kinnock until 1985. After rising through the ministerial ranks, he became Leader of the House of Commons in 2000, also known as Minister of the Today Programme. After a brief spell in the Department of Health he became Defence Secretary in May.

Why is he called upon: Seen as pugnacious, but highly capable, Mr Reid is also relatively gaffe-free and doesn't mangle his sentences in his same fashion as that other bruiser, John Prescott.

Best example of style: Inevitably, Mr Reid's "Who're yoo messin' aboot wi', laddie?'' style led to a memorable clash with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last year:

Reid: "You called me an attack dog because I've got a Glasgow accent."

Paxman: "It is nothing to do with having a Glasgow accent. Who's mentioned anything about a Glasgow accent? Can we get on to the substance?"

Reid: "Yes if you stop insulting people."

Simon Carr's verdict: Another class-ridden Scot. Big brain and enormous brawn give him more personal power than anyone in the Cabinet. Hates being called an attack dog (he thinks it's common). Quotes Gramsci. Married to film producer. But suppresses his sense of humour with Stalinist efficiency.

Patricia Hewitt

Age: 57

Position: Secretary of State for Health

CV: Former head of National Council for Civil Liberties, Hewitt was press officer for Neil Kinnock in 1983. She Worked in think-tanks before becoming MP for Leicester West in 1997. Became Economic Secretary for the Treasury in 1998 and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in 1999.

Why she is called upon: As a cabinet minister, Hewitt has to speak for her department, but rarely has to defend the Government on a broader front. Relatively gaffe-free, but has an unfortunate "policy wonkette" style.

Best example of style: Typifies the evasive style of some ministers, reluctant to acknowledge that sometimes - just sometimes - they have to give a straight answer to a straight question. On the Today programme last month she was asked by John Humphrys why should there not be a limit on NHS operations in the private sector. She said: "You put it to me, why shouldn't 100 per cent come from the private sector and I've answered precisely that."

Simon Carr's verdict: One of her backbench colleagues comments: "Regards us all as educationally sub-normal, as though the English language is new to us." Born and brought up in the cultural-death capital of the world - Canberra. Brought her necropolitan talents to bear on Neil Kinnock, turning him from sparkling speech-maker to the Welsh windbag (it was her wind in his bags).

Jack Straw

Age: 59

Position: Foreign Secretary

CV: Former president of the National Union of Students. In 1976 became special adviser to Barbara Castle, and MP for Blackburn in 1979. Became shadow Home Secretary in 1995 and Home Secretary in 1997. Appointed Foreign Secretary in 2001.

Why he is called upon: Smooth and reliable, if somewhat buttoned-up performer.

Best example of style: The prim head-boy manner comes unstuck under pressure, as shown in this interview with John Humphrys on the Today programme in April on the legality of the war in Iraq:

Humphrys: "There is a ministerial code of conduct that requires the full text of any legal advice to be made available to such cabinet meetings. If you're going to tell me I'm wrong about that, I'd be interested to hear it?"

Straw: Yeah and also ... if you ... I haven't ... if you look at ... I've dealt with this, and ... keep your hair on. Er, I dealt with this ..."

Simon Carr's verdict: When Barbara Castle was addressing her staff after being sacked by Callaghan, she turned to thank Jack - but he was already gone, looking for his next job. Infallible weathervane. Has been chatting ostentatiously to Gordon Brown during Tony Blair's Commons replies for nine months. Brilliantly out-manoeuvred the Prime Minister on Europe.

Ruth Kelly

Age: 37

Position: Secretary of State for Education and Skills

CV: Kelly, a former economics writer, became MP for Bolton West in 1997 and joined the Government as Economic Secretary to the Treasury in 2001. Was Financial Secretary in 2002 and Secretary of State for Education in 2004. Rocky start, with questions about claiming credit for Jamie Oliver's school meals campaign.

Why she is called upon: The Government would like a personable, young woman - and a high-achiever mother of four to boot - to represent them and shore up the female vote, but Kelly's "head girl" trick probably alienates as many voters as it gains. Lacks the gravitas of Blunkett when lecturing inner-city headmasters.

Best example of style: Launching a Children's Charter in March, she said it would be difficult to produce a good school meal for 37p - the amount Oliver found a school in Greenwich spent per meal. "Quite frankly I don't see how Greenwich thought they could ever do it on 37p."

Simon Carr's verdict: Warm, human, successful, religious mother of four. Nicely brought-up girl with expensive education at one of our oldest public schools - but terribly class-conscious ("Nointeen nointy noine", she quite unnecessarily pronounces it). Tough cookie. Refused to be reshuffled after the election. Got all the teachers hating her in record time. Blandly defends the absolutely indefensible.

David Blunkett

Age: 57

Position: Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

CV: One of a coterie of local authority leaders who became MPs in the 1980s, "Dave'' Blunkett led Sheffield City Council for several years. Key Blair ally as Education and Employment Secretary in 1997-2001 and hardline Home Secretary from 2001 until resignation last December following a row over the handling of the visa for his former lover's nanny. Received new job after last election.

Why he is called upon: The first hang 'em and flog 'em Labour Home Secretary. Blunkett was almost never off the airwaves with his right wing-ish populist measures, reinforcing his appeal to many grassroots Labour supporters with the kind of views that make Islington liberals tremble.

Best example of style: Blunkett pioneered a sort of blunt, plain-speaking, man-of-the-people style, for which the Yorkshire accent is the ultimate accessory. Following the suicide of the mass murderer Harold Shipman in January 2004: "You wake up and hear [Harold] Shipman has topped himself. And you think, is it too early to open a bottle? Then you discover everybody's upset. You have be very cautious in this job."

Simon Carr's verdict: A dark star, falling. Was a Blairite candidate to succeed him instead of Gordon Brown. Ah, those distant days. Tone deaf. Tin ear. Resigned because he hadn't done anything wrong.

Dawn Primarolo

Age: 51

Position: Paymaster General

CV: From local politics in Bristol, Primarolo was elected Bristol South MP, known as Red Dawn for her left-wing views; she was promoted to Labour's front bench as shadow Health minister and then on to the Treasury team. In 1997, she became Financial Secretary to the Treasury, moving up to Paymaster General in 1999 where she has a played a large part in introducing tax credits.

Why she is called upon: Fortunately for Primarolo, as her performance yesterday on the Today programme underlined, this is not something that occurs very often. Despite her length of service, she is kept out of sight by Gordon Brown.

Best example of style: Slow, pedantic and more than slightly patronising, perhaps disguising a nervousness. On the Today programme she was wrong-footed when asked about her response to a parliamentary question over problems with the tax credit scheme. She had said the stumbling system was "performing very well".

Simon Carr's verdict: Delta Dawn used to be a pure stream of Trotskyism but she spread out. They got her measure and gave her a job early and she's toed any line marked in front of her. Attractive, flirty, funny, gossipy - and with a very fine complexion. All right, all right, the junior minister with the longest continuous service in one job. Not as hopeless as Rosie Winterton.

Lord Falconer

Age: 54

Position: Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor

CV: Old lawyer friend and colleague of the Blairs, "Charlie" Falconer joined the New Labour project as solicitor general in 1997, spent time as a junior minister in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions and at the Home Office, before his present job in 2003.

Why he is called upon: Like most lawyers, he can think on his feet. Unfortunately, this tends to make him sound like a posh barrister addressing a slightly dim jury.

Best example of style: Lord Falconer's plummy, courtroom style enables him to loftily brush aside criticism with the airiness of a barrister defending an obviously guilty client. Following widespread calls for voting reform, he was asked about the unfairness of an electoral system where 36 per cent of the vote could produce a government with a large majority. He replied: "I'm not sure there's widespread discontent with the electoral system. I'm not sure there's pressure for change."

Simon Carr's verdict: Blair's butler. He was on the plane with Blair when the news of Dr Kelly's suicide broke. He was thought to have made a terrible error of judgement by recommending Lord Hutton to chair the inquiry into the death. But he was cleverer than any of us gave him credit for.

Margaret Hodge

Age: 61

Position: Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions

CV: Like Blunkett, a former local government leader - in her case Islington - she became member for Barking in 1994. Junior ministerial posts led to her becoming Children's minister in 2003, sparking a row over abuse of children in Islington care homes while she was in charge. Moves to Department for Work and Pensions in 2005.

Why she is called upon: Only when absolutely necessary. Like Hewitt and Primarolo, Hodge is seen as a member of the nanny-knows-best school of ministering, with a manner that can bepatronising or just plain irritating.

Best example of style: Tends to wheel out New Labour platitudes when faced with uncomfortable questions: On BBC's Question Time, in December 2003 at the height of the row over the abuse in children's homes in Islington: "I really, really came into politics to change the world a bit and I really want to change the world and create better outcomes for children." Sounds more like a Miss World contestant than a politician.

Simon Carr's verdict: Was the Blair's richer, more successful, more famous neighbour in Islington. Survived any number of scandals. Staunch defender of the bureaucracy against the rest of us. Will the children of Islington forgive her? If she gets kicked out of parliament she can go and work in Tesco's. In Derby. If she can find it.

John Prescott

Age: 67

Position: Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State

CV: A former ship's steward, Prescott has been an MP since 1970, and Deputy PM since 1997.

Why he is called upon: "Two Jags" Prescott, like John Reid, is wheeled out when it seems necessary to browbeat broadcasters and reassure the grassroots, whose language he still speaks, even if it is unintelligible to the rest of us due to his ability to mangle syntax and deliver sentences that get lost in their own parentheses.

Best example of style: On his decision to leave the RMT union after many years: "Well, I was within three years of becoming, 50-year membership of the trade union and that meant quite a great deal to me, I'm a union person and everybody knows that, I come from a union family, [etc, etc], and it was a difficult decision but I mean the decision's clear, [etc, etc], that is say the renationalisation of rail and the three or four other things that..." [etc, etc,ad infinitum].

Simon Carr's verdict: Affects proletarian origins but brought up in leafy suburbs in nice semi by respectable, middle-class parents. Maybe it is this that has made him so undirectedly angry. Cleverer than his reputation (he pioneered PFIs) but everything he touches turns to sewage. His speech-making abilities are unfairly derided. It isn't the case with his syntactically sophisticated colleagues but his meaning is always absolutely clear.

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