Instant Expert Kit - Dawn Primarolo

Ah, the successor
That's right. After the downfall of the New Statesman's own Geoffrey Robinson, Dawn Primarolo has been appointed as the new Paymaster General, making her number three in the treasury team.

Hang on. Wasn't she nicknamed "Soviet October Rising" or something?
"Red Dawn", actually - the press have been making much of her left-wing "firebrand" background in recent days. There is irony in her recent work with the Inland Revenue, given that she was refusing to pay her poll tax in 1991, but her political life is an example of how many MPs on the left have come to terms with the Blair project. She has a classic left-wing profile: from a south-eastern working-class family, she studied social sciences at Bristol in the early 1970s, before working in the public sector as a legal adviser and council officer. An active member of the socialist Campaign group (and contributor to the Labour Herald, allegedly funded by the Workers' Revolutionary Party), she was secretary of Tony Benn's Bristol South-east constituency until boundary changes forced him out. This right-wing manoeuvring was avenged in 1986, when Kinnock's chief whip, Michael Cocks, MP for Bristol South, was deselected by his party (under rules imposed by the Bennites) and replaced with . . . Dawn Primarolo.

So has she renounced Tony Benn and all his works, becoming a Brownite?
Sort of. She was taken on to Brown's shadow Treasury team in 1994 precisely because of her reputation as an "articulate left-winger". Unlike the term "Blairite", which has political implications, Brownites can only really be described as those who have enjoyed a close working relationship with the Chancellor. Brown needed her as a left-wing sounding board. Previously she had led a vocal parliamentary career, supporting Benn for the Labour leadership in 1988, Bryan Gould in 1992 and condemning (with Clare Short) British involvement in the Gulf war. She found fame in 1989 by asking Margaret Thatcher if the only hope for low-paid women was "to follow her example and find herself a wealthy husband". This was effrontery indeed, but it was difficult to know who was the origin of the remark, as Primarolo was supposed to be reading out a question on behalf of Ann Clwyd, who had "lost her voice". She was made opposition spokesman on health in 1992 and immediately proved herself an effective frontbencher (although to the left of her superior, leading Virginia Bottomley to describe her as a "wet Blunkett"). Meanwhile, her membership of the Campaign group had lapsed. In 1994 Campaign put forward a motion criticising Brown's lack of "socialist commitment". Dawn didn't sign it, deciding not to rock the boat - she "didn't want to be in opposition when she was in government". Like other high-profile left-wingers such as Clare Short and Tony Banks, she had made the leap of faith. Brown offered her the "make-or-break" move to the shadow Treasury team. Since then, her work as financial secretary has won her many admirers, and Monday's announcement was just a straightforward promotion.

So why did it take 12 days, then?
Possibly because of Blairite-Brownite wrangling. Most likely it was due to the difficulty of juggling ministerial posts around, now that the government has hit its ceiling of 110 paid ministers (Robinson was unpaid). Thanks to her predecessor, the post now has a considerably higher profile, and her quoteable style and telegenic qualities will ensure a fair degree of media attention. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her rise is that, as opposed to many others on the left in the government, it is easy to imagine her advancing well beyond her current position.

So what's in her brief now?
That's really up to Blair and Brown as the position has not had any specific responsibilities for decades. Robinson tackled the tax loopholes of offshore trusts, and Primarolo will take on similar one-off projects. Could T S Eliot have predicted her move into regulation of the London financial markets? In The Waste Land he wrote of the "Unreal city/Under the Brown fog of a winter Dawn".

Duncan Parrish

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium