Degrees of certainty

Stephen Castle on a minister blunt enough to ask the hard question - and usually sure of the answer profile; Tessa Blackstone
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By 3.15pm last Thursday, Tessa Blackstone, minister for higher education, had given 12 media interviews and steadfastly declined to apologise for a mild outbreak of panic around school-leavers' gap years. After days of speculation Baroness Blackstone last week exempted thousands of students who had arranged to take a year off before university from new tuition fees due in 1998. In her small corner office on the seventh floor of the Department for Education and Employment, Lady Blackstone is not shouldering blame for a threatened stampede of applications to beat the fees deadline. She would, she says, take exactly the same decisions again and goes on the offensive against UCAS, the body which co-ordinates university admissions, for stirring up alarm among students.

It is a performance that would confirm Lady Blackstone's critics (of whom there are more than a few) in some of their prejudices. She is a politician who provokes strong feelings. A sample from Whitehall, Westminster and academia last week was less than universally flattering: "Arrogant, overbearing and rarely heard to listen to anyone," says one; "The most appalling snob. She's so rude that you can be standing in a room and she will look through you to see if there is anyone more interesting," says another. Even a fan concedes that her "creamy" manner, her "beautiful delivery and certainty of style can irritate people".

Is there some truth in these charges? Half amused, half horrified she shifts in her seat before delivering her riposte. This is, she says, "grossly unfair".

"I am certainly not snobbish, I don't think I'm arrogant. I know I have all kinds of faults and failings. I always think you have to learn from your mistakes. I am impatient and I constantly kick myself for that."

Later, discussing women in the workplace, she may still be thinking about these charges when she argues: "Women doing tough and difficult jobs may have to be tough. They may have to be a little more ruthless. It is still more difficult for people to accept that from a women." On the office wall in front of her hangs a 19th-century portrait of a titled woman of an earlier age, the explorer and writer Lady Maria Callcott.

THE PLUMMY accent is rather misleading. Tessa Ann Vosper Blackstone was born in 1942 in London and brought up in a "middle-middle class" family in the Home Counties. Her father was a chief fire officer, her mother, who had been an actress, was a dissatisfied housewife who trained late in life to become a medical secretary. One of four siblings, Tessa and her sister got the rougher end of the educational bargain. Her two brothers went to Cheltenham and Rugby but the family could not afford private education for all and Ware County Grammar School was thought good enough for the girls. Tessa intended to sit Oxbridge entrance in modern languages but, influenced by a former teacher, opted instead for social sciences at LSE.

Even at the start of the 1960s, before London was swinging, this was a liberating experience. The LSE had a cosmopolitan make-up with around 40 per cent of students from overseas. It was an era of awakening for economics and the social sciences which attracted radical spirits. Contemporaries included Robert Kilroy-Silk, later Labour MP and television presenter, and Mick Jagger. Blackstone stayed on, doing a PhD, before winning a job as a lecturer in social administration at the age of 24. Already a member of the Labour Party she was on the left of the LSE's political spectrum, identified as being more in sympathy with the tide of student protest than many colleagues.

She married Tom Evans in 1963 and has two adult children and three grandchildren. Her marriage broke up when she was 31, but a decade later she and her children nursed her ex-husband when he suffered terminal cancer. Blackstone has never remarried despite having many admirers and says she currently lives alone in Islington, north London. Always renowned for her looks, the peer retains a following; she is, said one unreconstructed Labour source last week, "our answer to Joan Bakewell - the thinking man's crumpet".

It was in the Downing Street think-tank of the 1970s that Blackstone made her name. Her lucky break came through Kenneth Berrill who took over from Victor Rothschild as head of the Central Policy Review Staff. As head of the then University Grants Committee, Berrill had commissioned work from Blackstone and, in search of younger academics of a social-science orientation, offered her a post.

There she famously took on the Foreign Office, winning the epithet of the "dark-eyed evil genius" over a review of its functions. The most bruising stop was in Paris where Sir Nicholas Henderson, the ambassador, did little to conceal his hostility. According to her account, Blackstone's sin had been to ask - no doubt in the direct style that is her hallmark - "whether it was still appropriate to house the ambassador in an 18th-century palace and whether the embassy needed such a large fleet of official cars in a city with one of the best transport systems in Europe". One contemporary recalled: "She was treated by the mandarins and bureaucrats as symptomatic of the silly leftist tendency which did not appreciate the wonders of the Foreign Office." The report was fought off but many recommendations have, eventually, come to pass.

Twice she tried and failed to become a Labour candidate, first in Hackney North then, before the 1983 election, in Stevenage, a contest which she lost after a dead heat in the fifth ballot. But even had she won she would not have become an MP because the seat remained Tory until this May (when it was won by her friend Barbara Follett). Close to Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader (she held a joint 50th birthday party with him and Ms Follett in the Natural History Museum's dinosaur room), she became a peer in 1987 and would have expected a big job if Labour had won the election in 1992.

Labour's further five years in opposition might have put an end to Blackstone's ministerial ambitions yet she has managed the political transition to Tony Blair's full-scale modernisation. She is not close to him personally but is rated for her intelligence and experience and confident enough of her position to have said publicly that, while she was delighted to be at the Department for Education and Employment, she would have preferred a job at the heart of the old enemy - the Foreign Office.

Ironically, Blackstone, once seen as a scourge of the Establishment because of her assault on diplomat's privileges, is very much part of it now. She is a former director of Thames Television, ex-chairman of the General Advisory Council of the BBC and founder of the leftish think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. She was the Master of Birkbeck College, London and thereby on the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. She is a director of the Royal Opera House and member of that most crusty of London clubs, the House of Lords. So has she sold out? The reply is swift and cogent: "If you define the Establishment as people who occupy position on many public bodies, then that is what I have been. If you mean a group of people who combine to protect and defend the status quo then I am not a member of it."

WHEN Blackstone became a minister in May and received her first batch of cabinet documents she was amused to see that the folders bore the same bureaucratic rubric as when she had last seen them 20 years previously. Experience of government is one of several things going for the new higher education minister. But the events of the last three weeks have raised questions. In 1988 Blackstone co-authored a book called Inside the Think Tank which argued that "the process of policy analysis and review in British government is not as strong as it should be. This weakness is partly a reflection of characteristics of the system of government such as the training and experience of civil servants, or the seemingly inevitable drift towards crisis management in the short term that has beset every government in recent years."

Last week's U-turn over student fees looks as if it might fit pretty neatly into such a pattern. Had it not taken place the Government might well have been sued by students, and one wag pointed out that the issue was one which might have benefited from proper consideration by her old think-tank, the CPRS. The best gloss, as one senior government source put it, is that "U-turns don't matter as long as the decision is right and taken swiftly".

This current hiccup aside, Blackstone is one of the most knowledgeable and formidable ministers of higher education for years. She has run an institution - Birkbeck College - which she dragged to commercial viability from the brink of extinction. By championing the plight of part-time students, she has demonstrated her commitment to a broader education system. Her backing for an early and politically risky decision to impose tuition fees on universities has been applauded as brave and sensible at Westminster. And on most education issues her thinking is admired. She is anxious to get more money into the university sector quickly, aware of its immediate cash crisis, and is looking "at how we get more short-term money" into the system. She believes that the arcane ruling that student loans count against the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (and therefore count as government spending) should be scrapped. "My own personal view is that this is something that ought to be changed," she says.

This will be music to the ears of her former academic colleagues. The Chancellor permitting, she could become the first minister for almost two decades to secure more money for higher education. There is little risk of her being over-awed even by the Treasury's grandest mandarins. As one friend put it, Lady Blackstone is unlikely to end a habit of a lifetime; asking difficult questions - rather bluntly.