McLeish hits the ground running

When Leeds United's legendary manager Don Revie signed a batch of boy footballers in the early Sixties, one of them did not make it into the big time.

Fellow Scots Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray won championships and international caps, but homesick Henry McLeish returned to his native Methil and played out his short career in the unglamorous Second Division side East Fife. Many thought McLeish's political career was following the same pattern. As an MP, he was overshadowed by the rising star in the neighbouring Fife constituency, one Gordon Brown. Returning home to the Scottish Parliament, he was twice relegated - first, by being ignored for the vacant Labour deputy leadership; then, in the interests of coalition, having to cede the post of Deputy First Minister to the Lib Dem Jim Wallace.

With dramatic suddenness, McLeish's spell in the lower league has ended and, as Scotland's First Minister, he is picking the team and deciding the tactics.

The succession to the late Donald Dewar was decided by a brief, somewhat brutal, process. McLeish's accession was followed by a brisk "I'm in charge" demonstration, which included a Scottish Cabinet reshuffle and a policy overhaul - all accomplished within two weeks of Dewar's death. Those who were surprised by McLeish's speed and decisiveness had forgotten his background. His record is one of slogging hard work, persistence and a willingness to put in a tough studs-up tackle when necessary.

McLeish left school having failed academically, but later qualified as a town planner (explaining his dedication to his portfolio of Enterprise and Lifelong Learning) before becoming leader of the Fife council. His grandmother was a Labour member for more than 60 years, his mother was a home help and his father spent 30 years in the mines, helping out in the soup kitchens during strikes. McLeish's first wife died of cancer five years ago and his second wife, Julie, is a senior social worker.

Although he was Dewar's deputy in everything but name, the First Minister humiliated him by disregarding the part of the Scottish Labour Party constitution that would have given him the formal title. The more cerebral Dewar made it plain that he did not rate McLeish as an intellectual.

Hence the feeling behind McLeish's thinly veiled criticisms of the man who had, only days before, been the subject of universal praise. The new First Minister said his first task would be to deal with the frustration and disenchantment among Labour backbenchers.

Before Dewar's death there had been a groundswell of complaint that his administration took too lofty an attitude to backbenchers, while left-out junior ministers were forming a cabal to force him to take them into his confidence. McLeish's supporters had expected a two-to-one victory and blamed the 44-36 margin in the abbreviated electoral college on the rift between the front and back benches. It appears that, while every member of the government voted for McLeish, more than half of the MSPs must have voted against him. He acknowledged: "The disaffection goes back a long time and must be addressed."

McLeish was determined not to suffer the same criticism as his predecessor - that, while Tony Blair had hit the ground running when he became Prime Minister, Dewar had hit the ground strolling. The first week of his administration was about sorting out the personalities and the second week will see a string of policy announcements. McLeish and his hard-man henchman and chief whip, Tom McCabe, have crawled over portfolios, weeding out politically correct but electorally unpopular items, with the instruction to ministers to "dump the crap".

In the government reshuffle, the accident-prone Sarah Boyack of Transport and the Environment survived, but had her portfolio split. She was told to drop her controversial proposal for workplace parking charges, go slow on motorway tolls and get a move on with the long-delayed M74 extension in Glasgow.

And, having suffered a backlash for being seen as the favoured candidate of Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street, McLeish caused tremors by hinting at increasing the Scottish Parliament's devolved powers: "I would hope to show people this is not an annexe of anywhere in the United Kingdom, that this is a proud and purposeful parliament in which I will take a very Scottish role indeed."

The new First Minister may still face a challenge when the full electoral college, now being organised, belatedly allows the party and union rank and file to have their say.

The influential backbencher John McAllion said: "If the left don't challenge the new Labour project now, when there is an electoral contest, then they are never going to challenge. The left either put up, or they shut up."

But with three Scottish by-elections pending, no one really wants to rock the boat and McLeish will be confirmed when the result is announced on 20 December. It is the longer term he has to worry about.

The Finance Minister, Jack McConnell, who would now be First Minister had he been able to persuade five more people to vote for him, is not standing for the deputy leadership. While pledging his allegiance to McLeish, he can still be "semi-detached" and in a position to challenge again if there are any slips.

At 52, McLeish can expect to be First Minister in 2007, the tercentenary of the union between Scotland and England. More than anyone, he has the responsibility to disprove the former SNP leader Alex Salmond's prediction that the Union will not see its 300th birthday. The ball is at his feet . . .

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich