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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 16:19 GMT
Andrew Smith: Treasury Chief Secretary

By BBC News Online's Chris Hamilton

Although a safe pair of hands at the Treasury Andrew Smith has been haunted by his declaration in 1996: "Our air is not for sale".

Speaking as shadow transport spokesman, he was making plain Labour's opposition to Conservative plans for the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services (Nats).

But three years on his party conference rallying cry turned into a huge embarrassment when Labour switched policies and proposed a public-private partnership for Nats.

There is a ring of steel around our spending plans. We have to be tough and self-disciplined

Andrew Smith
November 1999
It was a blip in what has otherwise been a competent if unsparkling career - as many commentators also portray the man.

Yet another New Labour high-flyer who rose swiftly after the 1997 election victory, 50-year-old Mr Smith has come into his own as chief secretary to the Treasury.

Promoted to the post in October 1999, he told interviewers a month later of his determination to keep "an iron grip" on spending.

That was when Labour's two-year commitment to stick to Tory spending plans was still in place - and Mr Smith proved himself the perfect guardian of what was a key election pledge.

Oxford days

Born in Reading and grammar school educated, Mr Smith went to Oxford University, joined the Labour party aged 22 and was elected to the city council in 1976 aged 25.

The Treasury
A natural home for Mr Smith?
In 1982 he chaired Oxford's "anti-Falklands-war committee", a stance reflected in his opposition to the Gulf war a decade later.

Entering parliament in 1987 he defeated Oxford East's sitting Conservative MP Steve Norris with a majority of just 1,288.

Mr Smith's maiden Commons speech focused on a call for the then publicly-owned Austin-Rover car company to remain "in the ownership of the British people".

Promotion was rapid and after stints as education and Treasury spokesman he was appointed shadow chief secretary in 1994 under shadow chancellor Gordon Brown.

The same year Mr Smith did his future career prospects no harm when he supported Tony Blair for party leader and signed up to the campaign to replace Clause IV of Labour's constitution later that year.

'Mr New Deal'

In 1996, despite being earmarked as a Brown loyalist, he began a stint outside the Treasury brief - first as transport spokesman and then in government as employment and disability rights minister.

Under David Blunkett he was given the task of introducing Labour's flagship New Deal job scheme - which happened to be a pet project of Mr Brown's.

The success he quietly made of the task was rewarded with promotion to the cabinet.

Along the way he picked up experience delivering programmes within budget and working across departments - perfect background for a chief secretary to the treasury.

Tough talking

He was immediately thrown into the fray, overseeing departmental spending bids for what was to become last year's comprehensive spending review.

More tough bargaining was in evidence when he led the Treasury haggling with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Agriculture Minister Nick Brown over every part of a 203m farmers aid package.

He also commanded a Treasury team fighting Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon over a procurement package seen as unnecessarily expensive.

But battling with colleagues has not been Mr Smith's only role in government.

Spice Girls

Despite an unstarry public demeanour his success defending policy in the media has seen him appointed as Labour's one-man financial hit squad.

Briefed to deconstruct the Tories' tax and spending plans, he called their proposal to give tax breaks to married parents with young children "uncosted, unfair and unbelievable".

Outside work it seems Mr Smith is capable of confounding his boookish image.

He lists his likes as sport, walking and music - "rock and opera".

And he once confessed in an interview to knowing who the Spice Girls are.



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