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Friday, 3 November, 2000, 13:07 GMT
Woodhead a political time bomb
Ofstead chief Chris Woodhead
Woodhead is planning a new career
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Chris Woodhead's surprise decision to quit as Ofsted boss may have landed the government with a political headache - but it has delighted vast numbers of Labour MPs.

When the news broke in the bars of Westminster on Thursday evening Labour backbenchers were almost universally overjoyed, some even punched the air in a victory salute.

The overwhelming view was that, now the demon had gone, the government could appoint somebody teachers might actually get on with and who could give new pride to the profession.

Whether Tony Blair will decide to do that or will again want a hardman, or woman, to continue the drive to increase standards and present a tough face to parents remains to be seen.

It was also being widely speculated that Mr Woodhead had chosen his moment because he wanted to stand as a Tory MP at the next election.

He has publicly declared that he is not a Tory, which might make any such ambition hard to fulfil.

Speak out

But many MPs claim to see growing evidence that he is about to "come out" as a Conservative.

His remarks about giving head teachers the right to manage their own schools have strong echoes of the Tory policy on schools.

His move to The Daily Telegraph, a Tory-supporting paper, is seen as a further indication of his own beliefs.

And the timing of his decision, meaning he will be free from his contract next February, is also seen as significant.

It is certainly true that the timing means he now becomes an unexploded political bomb which might just go off in the heat of the general election campaign - assuming that is still on course for May.

Once he is free to speak out he has signalled he will tear into the government's education policies, which could prove highly embarrassing to Tony Blair, who reappointed him to his job after the last election.

But he has also said he wants to speak out on other "cultural and social issues."

That suggests he sees a wider role for himself, which will also be seized on by some to claim he is looking for an overtly political career.

Private life

Mr Woodhead's supporters, however, insist he has done a hugely successful job but had become increasingly frustrated by the government's policies on education.

Education Secretary David Blunkett has insisted his determination to raise standards remains undimmed and it is clear he was becoming increasingly irritated by Mr Woodhead's confrontational approach.

He let his anger show when asked if he had wanted Mr Woodhead to stay.

"Of course I didn't want Chris Woodhead to hand in his resignation having spent the most enormous political energy and time defending him and the role of Ofsted over the last three and a half years, including through the terrible trauma of eight weeks of Chris's private life," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Mr Woodhead has insisted that he jumped and was not pushed but there have been persistent rumours that Mr Blunkett discovered he had been trying to find a new job for himself and was about to kick him out anyway.

Whatever the truth of all this, it is clear that the relationship between Mr Woodhead and the government had badly broken down and it was only a matter of time before the divorce was made official.

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See also:

01 Nov 00 | Education
Woodhead spars with MPs
03 Nov 00 | Education
Woodhead wants freedom to speak out
09 Jul 00 | Education
Woodhead praises Hague's schools plan
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