PROFILE: Stephen Dorrell; Enter the invisible man

The BSE crisis has placed the Health Secretary centre stage. Mary Braid wonders if he will cope
Click to follow
Cushioned for months by the simple fact that he was not Virginia, Stephen Dorrell's lengthy honeymoon as Secretary of State for Health came to a dramatic, abrupt end this week.

Most people feel a morbid, human fascination with those pole-axed by fate just when everything was going rather swimmingly. There was the clever, confident Mr Dorrell getting on with the business of cleaning up after his unpopular predecessor, Mrs Bottomley - and no doubt occasionally allowing those thrilling predictions of future Tory leadership to flit naughtily through his mind - when mad cow disease (BSE) creeps up and taps him on the shoulder.

The announcement that there may, after all, be a link between BSE in animals and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans - and speculation that it may claim as many as 500,000 lives - has scared the public. It has also shaken Mr Dorrell's political ambitions. In a relatively trouble- free ministerial career, he has never before faced a crisis on this scale. The next few weeks will be crucial for a man, who in 1994 was known to only 4 per cent of voters, but is now tipped for Number 10.

Of course there have been political difficulties before for the member for Loughborough, who gave up a career in his father's industrial overall business to became an MP in 1979. (His 20 per cent shareholding in the family business and his wife Annette's place on the board ensures an interest and income outside parliament.) First Mr Dorrell, at 27 the youngest of the 1979 intake, languished on the backbenches. Mentored by David Hunt, the former Welsh secretary, he was, both by association and in his own social policy ideas, too damp for Mrs Thatcher's liking.

But after becoming a junior health minister in 1990 he moved swiftly on and up to become Financial Secretary to the Treasury and then Secretary of State for National Heritage. There was that embarrassing occasion when Mr Dorrell revealed that he thought that Jeanne Moreau, the French actress, was a man. Some found it hard to forgive in a national heritage secretary who had already confessed he could not remember the last film he saw. His detractors sniffed that he was just too middle-market and middlebrow bourgeois for the job.

But these are mere ripples compared to the current storm. The question is, can Mr Dorrell retain his legendary cool? His unflappability - and dry sense of humour - was clearly demonstrated when his mother was recently splashed across the front of the local paper objecting to the closure of an old folks home in which his father had died. Confronted by the picture of mum and her spaniel, he reportedly said: "Oh well, at least it is a nice picture of the dog."

Mrs Dorrell's latest media encounter may prove more testing. She revealed in the Daily Mirror yesterday that Mr Dorrell does not eat burgers and nor do his two young children. The question of whether he would feed beef to his own children has had Mr Dorrell squirming all week. He has refused to give a direct answer.

He gave an uncharacteristically poor Commons performance when he made his statement on BSE. "Once he started reading he didn't lift his head once," said one commentator. "He totally failed to see the human dimension. He forgot to say he realised that people would be anxious; that the news was worrying. He was clearly worried about how this would look in five or 10 years' time. He is a very ambitious man and he wants to cover and distance himself. His later statement that he didn't have a scientific opinion worth listening to on the subject was quite bizarre. It was a remarkable abdication of responsibility for a minister."

But admirers see the week's performance as a reflection, of his preference for understatement and his low-key style. Until recently, Mr Dorrell regularly loop-the-looped in the skies over his Worcester home in his beloved Tiger Moth. But his devil side is an aberration: frequent comparisons of the minister to the clean-cut models that adorn Fifties knitting patterns are more in keeping with his personal style and political approach.

Mr Dorrell would balk at thenotion of a Gummer-style photo opportunity involving his children. And the rather grave Mr Dorrell would have frowned had he inherited "Minister for Fun", the nickname given to David Mellor, his predecessor at heritage. If anything characterises Mr Dorrell it is, they say, "caution".

Even Stephen Dorrell's critics say he is "awesomely talented". Civil servants are full of praise for his command of his brief, management skills, courtesy and his loyalty.

One political commentator recalls Mr Dorrell's "impressive" return to the Department of Health last year. "Within a week he found himself in front of a health select committee. He had the standard ministerial brief in front of him but never had to open it once." However, Mr Dorrell shares John Major's "greyness". "There is a touch of the civil servant in him. He hasn't got a big personality and that is a problem," says one political admirer. "Like Kenneth Clarke, he is a confident performer. Both men stand out in the political arena because they will concede points but go on to fight their corner. But Stephen Dorrell is Clarke without the high wire. He is safer, less exciting and less glamorous."

Mr Dorrell claims to enjoy being grilled by Jeremy Paxman. "He is an ideas politician," says one commentator. "He is there because he is interested in politics, not because of his ego. And he sees politics with an outsider's eye. He likes to talk to journalists to sharpen his arguments.

"But he will never be leader of his party. He is just too rational, reasonable and calm a man. He is not combative enough on TV to get the backbenchers' blood up."

Others do not dismiss him so readily. Chris Ham, health economist and adviser to Dorrell, says that everything depends on how he handles his greatest crisis. What is certain is that Mr Dorrell, until recently virtually unknown, will never again be seen as the Cabinet's Invisible Man. BSE will make him or break him.