Steve Richards: Ruth Kelly has done nothing wrong and should survive this absurd media frenzy

Tony Blair would be displaying a fatal weakness if he sacked her. For once, sanity must prevail
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, is the safest minister in the Cabinet. She should not be sacked. I do not believe she will be sacked.

I should make clear this conclusion is not based on a private briefing. On the contrary, I do not underestimate the pressure on Ms Kelly. Tony Blair has delayed his reshuffle warily in case she fails to "come through" the storms erupting around her. Other ministers have fallen when overwhelmed by a single minor tempest. Ms Kelly is battling desperately on two different fronts, responding to the hysteria about paedophiles in schools and the rebellion over her schools' White Paper.

What is more, she lacks allies on the Labour benches. She is part of a relatively new phenomenon, a minister dependent alone on the patronage of the Prime Minister. Previous Labour prime ministers appointed ministers partly on the basis of their standing in the party and their ideological perspective. Now ministers flourish only if they deliver the agenda determined by Downing Street. If they become vulnerable, there is no power base outside Downing Street that rushes to protect them. Few tears would be shed among Labour MPs if Ms Kelly lost her job.

Even so, several other ministers would have cause to cry with fear if she goes because of the paedophile furore. It is wrong to say that this is a non-story. There are big questions about who should be restricted from taking up jobs in schools and other services. Equally important, there are pressing issues in relation to who should take such decisions. As I argued last Friday, it is absurd for an overworked Education Secretary in Whitehall to be theoretically responsible for the appointment of a teacher in Norwich.

But Ms Kelly is being asked unfairly to assume sole responsibility for the actions of her huge department and all the indirect consequences of those actions. She is in the equivalent position of a Home Secretary when a prisoner escapes. On such occasions, the Home Secretary is theoretically responsible. In policy terms, it is arguable that the Home Secretary is responsible. Perhaps cutbacks in prison security have led indirectly to prison outbreaks. Even so, there is now a general recognition that it is inappropriate to blame a cabinet minister when a prisoner escapes on the Isle of Wight.

That is why Ms Kelly must survive the frenzy. Natural justice and fairness demand that she survives, but that is irrelevant. When parts of the media seek a ministerial head, they usually succeed. But if Mr Blair were to sack her over this, he would resurrect the increasingly outdated doctrine that ministers are responsible for anything that happens under the auspices of their vast departments. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, would be vulnerable if a prisoner escaped. More immediately, other ministers who might have also inadvertently or deliberately given the go-ahead to those who have committed relatively small offences would have to go. Previous Conservative ministers would also be in the dock. For once, sanity will have to prevail. The self-interest of the Government as a whole means Ms Kelly cannot be allowed to take all the flak for events in which she played a minor role or no role at all. Mr Blair would be displaying a fatal weakness if he sacked her when she has done nothing wrong.

Ms Kelly's position is made incomparably more complicated because of the rebellion in Labour's ranks against the schools' White Paper, an entirely separate issue. The scale of the revolt should not be underestimated. Tonight, the former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, breaks his noble vow of loyalty by speaking out against the proposals. This is highly significant. Privately, Mr Kinnock opposed passionately the introduction of top-up fees for universities. He remained silent. On the schools' White Paper, he feels compelled to speak out along with a large section of the parliamentary party.

He does so with good cause. The White Paper is a muddle. Mr Blair has hailed it as a historic reform, but in a speech at the weekend suggested that many schools might not make use of new powers. Dr John Dunford from the Secondary Heads' Association has said that after endless readings of the paper and discussions with ministers he is still not clear whether the proposals are "a revolution in school structures or simply a change of name for schools".

The paper offers choice for parents and freedoms for schools over admission policies - contradictory aspirations. It is not clear what will happen to the many parents who do not get their "choice". Popular schools can expand but are unlikely to do so if they risk becoming unpopular as a result. There will be chaos, and in chaotic situations the assertive middle-class parents will prevail.

But Ms Kelly's culpability is limited. The origins of the White Paper go back a long way. They are connected to the fallout of the war against Iraq. Indeed, like so much else, the war hovers over Mr Blair's current domestic agenda, indirectly causing more havoc. After the war, focus groups suggested that Mr Blair was spending too much time on foreign policy. He needed to show he was returning to the domestic agenda in a big way. As a result, ministers were under severe pressure to produce radical proposals, or, to be more precise, reforms that fitted Mr Blair's interpretation of radicalism. In the summer of 2004, with trumpets blaring, Mr Blair announced his 10-year plans for schools, hospitals and crime. The plans for schools are those that are now published in the White Paper. Ms Kelly was not the education secretary at the time. Perhaps she believes in the proposals. She has told me several times that she does. But she was elsewhere when the proposals were devised.

Charles Clarke was the education secretary at the time, and to his credit incurred the wrath of Downing Street occasionally by resisting some of the pressures to be even more "radical". Mr Clarke and his schools minister, David Miliband, were also pushing hard for the implementation of the Tomlinson report on reforming school exams, a genuinely radical proposal. If they had succeeded, the focus of the current debate would be less on structure and more on what happens in schools. But this was a policy driven by Downing Street. Departmental ministers were dispensable. Mr Clarke and Mr Miliband have moved on. Ms Kelly is in the chair as the music stops.

If she were to be moved, Mr Blair would be more exposed, the equivalent of Norman Lamont's departure in 1993 making matters worse rather than better for John Major. A new education secretary could only make a difference by changing the policy. A change of policy would make futile the turmoil of removing Ms Kelly.

Ms Kelly endures almost unbearable pressures. If she were sacked, the pressures on Mr Blair would be even worse.