Slick-haired rocker steps in to take on pensions portfolio

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Indy Politics

Alan Johnson is a streetwise, straight-talking former postman who dropped out of grammar school at 15 with the dream of becoming a rock star.

Alan Johnson is a streetwise, straight-talking former postman who dropped out of grammar school at 15 with the dream of becoming a rock star.

Orphaned as a teenager, he was brought up by his older sister in a Chelsea council flat, near enough to London's King's Road to find himself at the heart of the Sixties rock revolution.

As a teenager, he used to loiter near the World's End pub in Chelsea hoping for a glimpse of his Rolling Stones heroes Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. He was a regular at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street and the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond.

At 54, the Work and Pensions Secretary remains a serious music fan and will possibly be the coolest member of the Cabinet. When not wading through ministerial red boxes, he sneaks away from the Commons to follow the Super Furry Animals and relatively obscure bands such as Elbow and the Mull Historical Society.

Although his ties to the music industry (his son is a successful pop producer) may overshadow the Prime Minister's teenage flirtation with the guitar in Ugly Rumours, Mr Johnson is singing from the same score as Tony Blair politically.

He is highly regarded by the Prime Minister for his incisive grasp of policy and communication skills. Although he did not attend university himself, he has been a highly able minister for Higher Education.

He won plaudits for his handling of the Higher Education Bill where he steered the highly contentious proposal for tuition fees through the Commons in the face of an angry backbench revolt.

Even the Bill's opponents admitted he handled the difficult piece of legislation well. He was praised by Downing Street for taking his critics on and explaining in a straightforward manner what the legislation - a flagship Bill for Mr Blair - would mean.

But he was also honest about the Government's mistakes, admitting the Labour leadership should have done more to consult the party about its proposals for student finance before launching them.

Mr Johnson first came to Downing Street's attention as minister for Employment Relations where he negotiated a tricky package on employment rights with the unions. Some union bosses felt he had sold out too much to business but his negotiating skills were admired within Government.

Although a Londoner at heart, the former postman-turned-union leader was elected MP for Hull West and Hessle in 1997.

He is seen by some as a Blairite but he is well liked by Labour MPs and is not seen as a tribal figure in the Commons or a natural antagonist.

Fellow ministers say he is very easy to work with and they are also impressed by his ability to turn opaque detail into a digestible political message.

He also has a steely side and will not flinch from attacking opponents head on, condemning their ideas as "incredible garbage" if he needs to.

The minister cuts a trendy figure around the Commons, with his slicked-back hair and designer suits. He is often seen wandering about chatting to colleagues in a good humoured manner. This summer, he was able to laugh even after he collapsed on the floor of his bathroom with food poisoning after a working lunch with two political journalists.

At Work and Pensions, he will have to wade into the seemingly impenetrable territory of tax credits and take charge of a crackdown on "economic inactivity" including tightening the rules for those claiming millions of pounds of incapacity benefits.

And although he will be delighted with his promotion, he is said to have harboured a wish to become Culture Secretary, where he could indulge full-time his interest in rock music, literature and art.