Harriet Harman Will Be the First of Many Social Security Secretaries in the Blair Government. but Don't Blame Harriet

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), March 6, 1998 | Go to article overview

Harriet Harman Will Be the First of Many Social Security Secretaries in the Blair Government. but Don't Blame Harriet


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


Please do not throw the magazine to one side or move on in disgust to the diary of Lynton Charles, but I have to admit to feeling more than a twinge of sympathy for Harriet Harman. She has always been unpopular among some of her colleagues, an unpopularity that descended to loathing when she sent her son to a grammar school. Now even her modernising friends are deserting her. "Harriet must go" appears to be the universal cry.

Not that she will go very far. I will put a week's salary at the New Statesman (admittedly a cautious bet) that she remains in the cabinet after the reshuffle. Tony Blair, like most prime ministers, will not be a keen sacker of old friends. In all the endless speculation about the cabinet reshuffle between now and the summer, bear in mind that quite possibly only two places will be available in the cabinet, brought about by the expected departures of David Clark and Gavin Strang. Blair would be wise not to go much further after such a short period of time. Not even Margaret Thatcher, who was on the whole a ruthless reshuffler, dared do more than tamper with her cabinet after a year.

But Harman does not want to be moved within the cabinet and although she is not one to show self-pity (far from it), she has some cause to feel hard done by. She has never really recovered from her stint as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, where she was widely seen as being a poor performer against Michael Portillo. This is where my twinges of sympathy begin. She got the job after the election defeat in 1992, at a time when Labour was making no expenditure commitments at all, a phase that makes the Five Early Pledges seem like an irresponsible spending spree. When she attacked Portillo it was almost impossible to answer his retort: "Alright then, what would you do?"

A shadow cabinet member, now a senior member of the government, observed to me at the time that "the bloody woman can't add up". It is an impression which has unfairly stuck.

But the shadow chief secretary post was a bed of roses compared with the social security brief. I can think of no one in the middle ranks of the cabinet who would have made a success of the brief at a time when the rhetoric of welfare reform is unmatched by substance. Frank Field is no admirer and he has more cause than most to feel antagonistic, having watched her at close quarters, but he comes to the department with a well-worked-out vision. She comes with a more mundane short-term requirement, which is to make savings. Do not forget one of Blair's famous vows (the Tories certainly will not), which was to reduce the costs of welfare, transferring the cash into "productive spending".

Even so, she did try to persuade the Treasury not to go ahead with the cut in single-parent benefits. A myth has grown since that another more capable minister would have won such a battle. …

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