She is a candidate for Deputy Leader but is Hazel nuts?

By PETRONELLA WYATT

Last updated at 23:43 06 June 2007


A voice like a dentist's drill Mad about tap-dancing, And, oh yes, a maniac biker. But will Hazel Blears (all 4ft 10 in of her!) ever grow on us?

Well, I am in Hazel Blears's large office in the House of Commons looking for its occupant. I cannot see her. This is not surprising because the Labour Party chairwoman and would-be deputy leader is famously tiny - a mere 4ft 10in. (At 51, she is unlikely to grow any more.)

Hazel Blears

Leader of the pack: Hazel Blears on her beloved motorbike

When she appeared on Newsnight with the five other deputy leadership candidates, there was much hilarity at Hazel's attempts to keep her head above her lectern.

I start wondering whether I have accidentally sat on her, when she suddenly enters the room - voice first.

Much has been said about the Blears vocal chords. Her voice has been described variously as "a SWAT megaphone", "a dentist's drill" and "a shrill World War II signalling device".

In the flesh, though, she sounds more like a music system that has got stuck on treble.

"Hello, hello," she says, holding out a titchy hand. "Tea? Coffee? Have a seat."

She speaks breathlessly, dropping conjunctives in her hurry. She doesn't walk so much as zoom around, like a motorised Munchkin. David Blunkett, for whom she worked at the Home Office, said she had "more energy than anyone I have ever met".

Blears has been dubbed Tony Blair's "little ray of sunshine" and admits to "a burning desire to make things better" and "an unquenchable optimism" (she is a devout Christian).

Indeed, I almost expect her to burst into song.

Hazel's stature, voice, and enthusiasms - she is an avid tap dancer and a motorcycle junkie - have made her the butt of ridicule.

Lefty MP Frank Dobson once remarked: "The good thing about global warming is that Hazel Blears will be the first to go when the water rises".

There were louder sniggers when she recently decided to produce T-shirts for her campaign with the slogan "Nuts about Hazel".

"Do you mind being made fun of?" I ask her.

She arranges her mouth - painted a shiny showgirl red - into a beaming smile.

"Not really. I ceased to be upset by such things a long time ago. But I am human," she assures me.

"What does it feel like being so short?"

"Yes, I am very short," she says, sweetly.

"There was a piece in a newspaper which said that during this contest Hazel has grown in stature. I think they meant political stature!

"I was irritated during that Newsnight debate, though. Did they have to put me next to Hilary Benn, the tallest of all the contenders? What's more, those lecterns were so cheap it was impossible to adjust them."

She adds reflectively: "I think being so short is worse for men, however. If you are a woman, you can wear high heels and sometimes people feel protective of you."

Not that Blears seems to need any protection.

Once, when a mugger was unwise enough to attack someone within her sight, she ran after him shouting: "Stop thief! I'm a Member of Parliament."

She may yet, moreover, confound her detractors. She is third favourite to win the deputy leadership after Hilary Benn and Alan Johnson, and if she loses is bound to be offered a senior Cabinet job.

Born in Salford, Manchester, the daughter of a maintenance fitter, she became the local MP in 1997.

She has been Under-Secretary of State for Health - during which time she tried to get everyone to eat more fruit - Minister of State at the Home Office and is now Minister without Portfolio and Labour Chairwoman.

"What do you have to offer that the others don't, Hazel?" (The others being Benn, Johnson, Jon Cruddas, Harriet Harman and Peter Hain.)

She regards me with saucer-like brown eyes. "I have no big department to run, so I can concentrate wholly on being deputy leader. It should be a full-time job and not done in conjunction with something else.

"You see," she continues, loudly and clearly, as if I were a public meeting,"the next election is going to be terribly, terribly difficult because we have a resurgent Conservative party."

"Hazel," I interrupt, "do you realise you have just said something pessimistic?"

"No, I haven't" she replies breezily. "I didn't say we will lose. But we are going to need more activists, more resources and a deputy who can concentrate on the election alone."

"Hazel," I interject, "you've been accused of being Tony Blair's little ray of sunshine. How do you plead?"

She cocks her head winningly. "There are two sorts of people in the world; those who are gloomy (can she mean Gordon Brown?) and those who think the world is a wonderful place. That's me."

Doesn't even she accept that history might judge Blair harshly?

"No. There have been such improvements in this country."

Then she adds generously: "They are Gordon's improvements, too. It is as much Gordon's legacy as Tony's."

Blears is often referred to as the Blairite candidate. (She has the support of Blairite Ministers John Reid and Tessa Jowell).

"Are you the Blairite candidate, Hazel?"

"No," she says to my surprise. "I am not. I also have people backing me who are in Gordon's team. I have broad support. I spoke to Gordon only last Sunday. He told me I was doing a good job."

Her eyes are in danger of becoming misty. I have the impression that she regards the world as a kind of barnstorming Hollywood musical.

If so, she has just jilted Tony Blair, ever so nicely, for her new leading man, Gordon Brown.

"I am sure Gordon will welcome someone loyal and straight forward," she beams again.

I point out that her temperament is rather different from Gordon's. As P.G. Wodehouse wrote: "It's never difficult to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance."

She shows teeth that could be an advertisement for toothpaste. "I think I will be a good balance for him. I think Gordon likes lifeenhancers. I shall be upbeat. I shall cheer him up."

I have the feeling she's half in love with poor Gordon and believes he can be gently hectored into being happy and extrovert.

I change the subject and ask if she thinks the Deputy Leader should also be Deputy Prime Minister?

"No. It's a big enough job in itself, nor is it constitutionally necessary to have a deputy PM at all."

So she has no designs on Dorneywood, the grace-and-favour mansion given to John Prescott, where he famously played croquet in the wake of the scandal of his affair with secretary Tracey Temple?

Hazel, to her credit, seems uninterested in political "perks".

"I don't know how to play croquet and I am not going to have an affair with my secretary!"

I don't blame her. He is sitting with us and is built on the lines of a small whale.

"Sorreee," she laughs to him. I ask her if she is optimistic about her chances of winning?

"Of course I am!" She runs perfectly manicured fingers through her hair.

Blears looks different from the sterile, efficiently dressed Hazel of a year ago. She appears positively girlish.

Gone is the severe, short hair cut in favour of something longer. She is wearing a pinky-mauve suit and a low-cut top that shows off her generous poitrine. "Have you had a make-over for this contest?" I inquire. (I have also observed that she occasionally lowers her voice - as if she is making a conscious effort to sound dulcet.)

"I have not had voice lessons, or a makeover," she insists. "I decided to grow my hair at my hairdresser's suggestion. Do you like it?"

"Er, yes," I say. "It's certainly better than your old style, which made you look like a member of a female Soviet tank corps."

Blears is the most literal politician I have ever met, for she says: 'I am not a communist, Petronella!"

Some people say Hazel is nuts. They cite her eccentricity in selling computer mouse mats (with a photo of Hazel on her motorbike), mugs and T-shirts with the "Nuts For Hazel" logo (at £16.80).

"Do you think these, er, souvenirs, will enhance your image as a femme serieuse?"I demand.

"What's wrong with them? American political candidates have hats and balloons and badges."

"But this is cynical Britain," I point out.

Hazel is unfazed. "You can play it boring, in which case you'll never cause a stir, or you can grab people's interest."

I wonder what her husband thinks of it all?

She has been married to lawyer Michael Halsall since 1989. (The couple are childless.)

"My husband has to like what I do," laughs Hazel. "Anyway, he is responsible for my becoming a motorbike addict. On our first date, which was in November, he took me out on his bike, and do you know what he did first? He brushed the snow off the seat for me. Can you imagine anything more romantic?"

I ask Hazel if her lack of height is a disadvantage on a motorbike?

"I imagine your feet are unable to touch the ground,' I say. 'Don't you fall off when you brake?"

"Yes. My height does make it hard. I once lost a bike from under me. But the one I own now is very small, an Italian Benelli 254."

When she is not on her bike she is on her feet, tap dancing. "Oooh, I love it," she gushes.

On her desk is a picture of her in action.

"You know, it's so easy."

She tells me that the basic step is called a shuffleboard change. "Come on, I'll show you," she cries.

She waves one miniature foot in the air. "Shuffle with your shoe, Petronella, front to back."

I have interviewed both Alan Johnson and Peter Hain, and neither taught me anything so diverting.

"You can like doing normal, happy things and still be serious," she says.

We walk out into the courtyard. "What a lovely, sunny day," she remarks.

"Don't you ever get depressed?," I ask.

"Don't you ever get a Black Dog, or even a Black Puppy?"

'Depressed? No, never! It would be quite wrong.'

We wander back to her office and she points to a piece of verse she has had framed. It was given to her by an American lady Baptist.

Blears was baptised a Methodist and attends church every Sunday. "Read it - it's my motto," she tells me. I peruse the last two lines: "That which I can do, God expects me to do."

"Does God expect you to win the deputy leadership and make Gordon happy?" I joke.

She ignores my question. But I already know the answer.

To Hazel, life is a glorious affair in which everyone loves each other and the heroine dances forever onwards and upwards.

I hope she does. The remarkable thing about Hazel Blears is her ability to grow on you.

 

Here's what readers have had to say so far. Why not add your thoughts below, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

The lady has guts.

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This Nu Labour deputy leadership farce is a bigger turn-off than Big Brother. Half a dozen z-list non-entities squabbling over a meaningless job when not one of them had the guts to challenge McBroon for the leadership. Please just get it over and done with!

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Well the labour party has a lot to do to win the next election but then so have the others. Hazel is a confident person says quite a lot of agreeable things along with two other collegues. Nothing wrong with the rest but their political views.

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Hazel Blears came across as refreshingly positive and optimistic, unlike the gloom-and-doom merchants who seem to find life one long chore! Well done Hazel, although I must warn you: such optimism is frowned upon in Britain!

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Unbelievable that this calibre of person has the nerve to put herself up as Deputy PM. Hopeless!

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Go Hazel!

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