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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
A cabinet fresh start?
New education secretary Charles Clarke
Clarke is a dramatic change from Morris

Estelle Morris was always enthusiastic about her "fresh start" programme to rescue failing schools.

She has now handed the prime minister an opportunity for a mini "fresh start" programme of his own.

Tony Blair may not have been delighted by the resignation of his education secretary, but he has lost no time in turning it to his advantage.

New Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy
Murphy is respected
Thanks to Ms Morris' handling of the education brief over the past few months, her department is clearly in need of a fresh start.

With the Northern Ireland assembly in suspension, a new face there may prove helpful.

And, possibly most important of all, the government's policy on Europe and the euro could certainly do with a bit of clarity.

Two rhinos

And, it has to be said, the prime minister has made skilful choices.

So long as Charles Clarke doesn't introduce Anglo Saxon into the English curriculum his blunt speaking, straightforward manner and past experience, both in education and in the Labour party, should stand him in good stead.

And he will need to draw on all those reserves in his new post which, as Estelle Morris' resignation has shown, demands a skin as thick as two rhinos.

Mr Clarke was also becoming an increasingly controversial figure in his job as party chairman, where he sometimes appeared to let his tough guy image get the better of him.

New Welsh secretary Peter Hain
Hain: Seen as rising star
His first task will be to put the disasters of the past few months firmly behind the government and to focus attention on the future.

The government is clearly right when it says there is a good news story in education - particularly in primary schools - and the opportunity for similar advances in future.

'Today' minister

But the brief needs careful handling and education cannot afford to be distracted by any more disasters if confidence amongst teachers and parents is to be rebuilt.

Northern Ireland is also at a turning point with the real potential for a serious crisis in the peace process.

Some have questioned the wisdom of changing Northern Ireland Secretary at such a time.

But Paul Murphy - who has long been tipped for the job - has the experience of the patch, is genuinely respected by all sides and could manage to provide both a fresh start and continuity.

Putting John Reid into the job of party chairman, with a seat in cabinet, is also a pretty canny, if predictable, move.

Dr Reid already speaks for the government on virtually any issue you care to mention - particularly the difficult ones.

He has already been branded the minister for the Today programme and will probably expand that role.

Licence to speak

Similarly, Peter Hain has long been seen as a rising star with a safe pair of hands and was due a place in cabinet.

Any controversies he has sparked over Europe and the euro have not been the result of gaffes.

It is widely accepted that he has a licence to speak on this issue from the prime minister.

He is a Euro enthusiast so his replacement in that role will be a clear signal of where the prime minister's thinking on a referendum currently is.

Many had expected the beginnings of the campaign around now, with paving legislation - as "accidentally" revealed by Stephen Byers - in next month's Queen's speech.

Key stories

Morris quits




See also:

24 Oct 02 | Politics
24 Oct 02 | Politics
24 Oct 02 | N Ireland

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