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Profile – Jim Murphy – Jim’ll fix it

Got a problem that needs sorting? You could do worse than ask the senior Cabinet Office minister in charge of most things. Mark Conrad talks to the amiable all-rounder

Jim Murphy is running late. It’s barely conceivable, he later tells me, that he’ll get through today’s crammed schedule of meetings and leave his Whitehall office at an hour most of us would deem ‘normal’.

It’s understandable because Murphy, the MP for East Renfrewshire, shoulders a huge ministerial workload. Since John Hutton became work and pensions secretary in November, he has been the only senior Cabinet Office minister.

So one wonders when his working day usually ends. ‘I have no idea – very late. I lost any concept of normality weeks ago,’ he jokes. ‘When I arrived at the Cabinet Office after the 2005 election, John was here. When he left, I was told I’d be on my own for a couple of weeks – it’s been five months.’

Rumourmongers suggest that Prime Minister Tony Blair was waiting to see if minor political tremors, such as Education Secretary Ruth Kelly’s problems with List 99, necessitated a reshuffle before he filled Hutton’s Cabinet post as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. More recent murmurings suggest Blair is now struggling to convince ministers to move posts while talk of his own departure date intensifies.

In the meantime, not a word of complaint passes Murphy’s lips – despite his temporarily giant remit, which includes civil contingencies planning, Whitehall regulation policy, e-government, government communication, the Freedom of Information Act and co-ordination with the Prime Minister’s Office.

The amiable Glaswegian (‘Celtic – let’s get the inevitable question out of the way’) relishes his role as the overworked, co-ordinating force behind the government’s public services reform agenda – the most challenging of his duties. And you don’t have to delve too far into his background to discover why.

Murphy, 39 this year, was raised among three generations of the same family in a two-bedroom flat on a Glasgow council estate; at least one member of the household was unemployed at any one time.

When he was 12 his family moved to Cape Town, but upon finishing secondary school, he rejected the ‘overt indoctrination’ of white schoolchildren by South Africa’s then apartheid regime and returned to Scotland ‘before a compulsory army call-up beckoned’.

He worked as a joiner before attending Strathclyde University, so genuinely appreciates his ‘immensely privileged’ white-collar position as an MP and minister.

‘A lot of people complain about the hours or the quality of life in politics. First of all, I tell them it’s a great quality of life and, secondly, nobody forces you to do it,’ he says. ‘There’s no shortage of people who want to be MPs so “if you don’t like it, don’t do it”.’

The ‘working-class-boy-made-good’ psyche informs much of his thinking. As his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank last week highlighted, he stands alongside Chancellor Gordon Brown in advocating the use of economic and social policy interventionism to kick-start social mobility – which has stalled across the UK since the 1970s.

While he celebrates the fact that many of Labour’s reforms – the minimum wage, tax credits, child trust funds and the extension of childcare support – have lifted hundreds of thousands of families out of poverty, Murphy remains ‘frustrated’ at witnessing a generation of 30- and 40-somethings who ‘have grown up in working-class, former industrial communities with a collective cap on their aspirations’.

Eradicating that, he claims, requires an extension of the government’s ‘choice’ agenda to social groups below the ‘sharp-elbowed middle classes’ that have been the biggest beneficiaries so far.

Murphy argues that the old ‘one size fits all’ models of public service provision, while beneficial to many, failed to assist millions of families. He rejects the argument that lower socioeconomic groups are neither concerned with how they receive services, nor educated or motivated enough to use resources at their disposal to improve their lives.

‘That idea that there’s a whole section of society that’s happy with their lot is largely a middle-class construct based on the fact that those very middle classes are comfortable exercising choice.

‘But not everyone has the same access to the choices that allow them to help themselves – and that should be the focus of future public service reforms.’

Consequently, Murphy and his Cabinet Office team are mulling over plans to extend choice through the fledgling public services ‘personalisation’ programme in schools, the health service and even welfare reform.

It’s early days yet, so he’s not in a position to reveal how ministers will target excluded socioeconomic groups, ‘but these co-ordinated plans are taking shape’, he says.

Murphy favours the use of strict benchmarks – ‘to focus minds on what should be achieved through reforms’ – and he reveals that individual primary school pupils could soon be measured against a target for their expected progress.

That, he claims, would prevent schools with a respectable league table position from ‘coasting’ or failing to address academic failure among pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Murphy’s is a daunting brief, but there is a strong feeling among his Cabinet Office staff that he is beginning to master it. ‘Jim? He’s the most down-to-earth minister I’ve ever worked with – and very good at his job,’ says one. ‘He’s focused, but he’s good-humoured and does a difficult job with a smile on his face. I daren’t get on the wrong side of him, though. Glaswegian. Very tough when he needs to be.’

That description belies his past as a government whip. Just five years after entering the Commons as Scotland’s youngest MP in 1997, Murphy was asked to use his robust negotiating skills to sweet-talk or strong-arm potential backbench rebels to ease the path of government Bills through Parliament.

It wasn’t easy. During Murphy’s watch (2002 to 2005), the government encountered a series of difficult votes, including those on foundation trusts and university top-up fees. But he describes the vote on the war on Iraq as ‘the biggest, toughest and most divisive’.

Political commentators portray Murphy as an ultra-loyalist Blairite ‘yes man’ – citing the fact that he has voted against the government just 14 times in almost 2,000 parliamentary votes.

But this is simplistic. On Iraq, for example, he voted for personal reasons. As a former president of the National Union of Students, he had organised demonstrations against Saddam Hussein’s regime, including staging events to raise public understanding of Saddam’s slaughter of families in the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988.

‘I’ve got a lot of Kurdish friends from that time, yet few people were doing anything about Iraq’s actions. Trade unions, political parties, the [then] Conservative government; all said there wasn’t enough evidence.

‘Yet there it was in colour on your TV; whole families being gassed. That’s why I took the decision to vote for the recent war. The evidence was there in Halabja and other villages on to which Saddam dropped chemical weapons. As it transpired, we were very wrong about the evidence in 2003 – Saddam didn’t still have chemical weapons and that’s generally acknowledged now. But my expectation was that the weapons of mass destruction genuinely were there.’

Despite the pressures on his time in London, Murphy always takes a late flight back to Glasgow on a Thursday evening so that he can be with his wife Claire and three children at weekends.

‘I even miss out on the successes of my beloved Celtic [Football Club] to see them,’ he beams mischievously. Best not mention to Claire, then, that he’s a regular at West Ham United when in London. That’s when he’s not captaining the House of Commons football team.

Some Whitehall sources claim that Murphy could be promoted to the Cabinet-level post at his department because of the ‘fine job’ he has done since November.

It’s more likely that he will have to wait his turn, but promotion to the ministerial first year can’t be far away.

Article Date: 14-Apr-2006

 

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