THE MT INTERVIEW BY MATTHEW LYNN: Patricia Hewitt

THE MT INTERVIEW BY MATTHEW LYNN: Patricia Hewitt - The DTI's Secretary of State is our most senior female politician. She has endured a rough ride in a department that still struggles for a true identity, but rather than just cheerleading for UK business, she sees her own role in the wider social context.

by MATTHEW LYNN
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The DTI's Secretary of State is our most senior female politician. She has endured a rough ride in a department that still struggles for a true identity, but rather than just cheerleading for UK business, she sees her own role in the wider social context.

Harry Borden, the photographer whose work is displayed opposite, is finishing up his session with Patricia Hewitt. He is packing away the rigs, pods and lights of his trade. 'She was great,' he enthuses to the DTI press officer hovering in the background. 'I photographed Gordon Brown a while ago and he was really difficult.'

'Hmmm,' mutters a voice from the Secretary of State's desk.

Pause. For a moment, I sensed that she was considering coming out with something indiscreet, maybe even letting rip in front of a journalist. But she just stops herself and we are left with the 'Hmmmm'.

It's a very Patricia Hewitt kind of moment. Like many politicians, especially those who have risen to the heights of New Labour, she is a controlled person. Somewhere within her, one feels, there are lots of interesting stories and plenty of emotions. All stuff we'd love to hear. She doesn't let many of them rise to the surface, however. She remains resolutely on-message, sticking to her straight lines and pre-defined themes.

She could be more fun if she wanted to be. And possibly a better politician as well - although just as possibly a completely ineffective one, since an unbuttoned Hewitt might also stumble into some terrible gaffes. (The fact that she's female makes her an easy target.) Candour in a politician is a rare quality, and one that only the greatest of the species can get away with. Margaret Thatcher just went around being herself, and kept getting re-elected until she went barmy. Tony Blair, on a good day, pulls the same trick. But the average politician - an Edwina Currie or an Estelle Morris - tries being natural, revealing themselves as they really are, and they promptly get sacked or wind up resigning because they are forced to admit that they're not the right person for the job in the first place. It's a treacherous path to walk down - succeed and you reach the top, fail and you get canned. Controlled is a lot safer and possibly more productive.

But she does tell engaging stories. After the 'Hmmm' she launches into a funny Gordon Brown tale. It's about a photoshoot at his house in Edinburgh.

'This was pre-Sarah,' she adds, with a lot of spin on the pre, suggesting those were the days of grim bachelor pads, what Martin Amis used to call a sock. 'There were papers everywhere. So, anyway, it was meant to be a relaxed, Gordon-at-home shot. Gordon was wearing a suit and a tie. So the photographer asked him if he could be a bit more casual. Gordon went upstairs to change.' Hewitt's lips crack up into a giggle. 'He came back down with a different tie on.'

Hewitt is now the most senior female British politician. Other Blairite ministers such as Estelle Morris, Helen Liddell and Harriet Harman have disappeared from the scene. Clare Short is still there - a loose cannon, shooting from the hip - but she is going no further: she's merely tolerated as an over-passionate but ultimately controllable item in the Overseas Development Agency box. Hewitt's lone success would seem to make her indispensable: the Blair government needs at least one woman in a senior job, otherwise it looks as if it has returned to the bad old sexist stone age.

Yet at the same time, she is at the DTI, and that has been, in recent years, a graveyard of political ambition: the last two ministers were Stephen Byers and Peter Mandelson, and nobody wants to emulate them.

Moreover, she has inherited the Department at a difficult time. The long honeymoon between New Labour and business now shows signs of coming to an end. Downturn doesn't help and the Government is the instant whipping boy. The Institute of Directors has been pouring contempt on the Government for years, but it has now been joined by the CBI, which now switches into cab-driver mode - 'and another thing about taxes and red tape' - every time the Government is mentioned.

At the DTI, Hewitt is the woman sitting in the coconut shy: it's her job to get shots thrown at her. 'Business is getting very disillusioned with New Labour,' says her Conservative shadow, Tim Yeo. 'What the DTI should be doing is acting as the champion of business within government, but she really wouldn't be your first choice to do that.'

The punishment will be soaked up, however. Hewitt is a lot tougher than she appears at first sight. She is a physically small woman, with a diffident manner and the voice of a Blue Peter presenter's mum. That is deceptive, however. Hewitt is a highly skilled political operator. She knows the Labour Party inside out. It has been a long, slow haul to the top, and now she is there she will be difficult to knock from her perch.

Indeed, some political analysts reckon that if there is ever a big falling out between Blair and Brown, Hewitt could well be the next chancellor.

'She's definitely in the running for a big job,' says Peter Oborne, political editor of the Spectator. 'She's a very safe pair of hands, and one of the very few ministers who can navigate a course between Number 10 and Number 11.'

She showed some of that steel in December with her handling of the collapse of the nuclear power generator, British Energy. She made sure that the chairman Robin Jeffrey was forced out and wouldn't receive an excessive pay-off; she has made a big issue out of clamping down on pay-outs for failure, so it would have been humiliating to hand Jeffrey a big cheque. And she made sure shareholders and bondholders suffered most of the pain for the company's problems.

But that was a big gamble. Sorting out failing privatised industries is becoming one of the main tasks of the DTI. If her solution to British Energy doesn't work (and there's something odd about someone who started on the left of the Labour Party ending up subsidising nuclear power stations) it may return to haunt her.

Like much of the New Labour hierarchy, her roots are in Scotland, although in her case via Australia. The Hewitts migrated to Australia in the 1840s.

It was a political family, and her parents were prominent in Australian life. Her father, Sir Lenox Hewitt, was the first permanent secretary in the prime minister's department. Her mother, Hope Hewitt, worked as an academic as well as raising a family.

'My mother was just as remarkable as my father,' she says. 'She was one of only two mothers of the girls in my school who worked at all. This was the 1950s, and the majority of middle-class mothers didn't work, certainly not in Canberra. She made most of our clothes, which I hated at the time but which I now think is just extraordinary.' She breaks off and laughs.

'I certainly can't sew. She had her own garden, she grew all her own vegetables. She'd get up at six in the morning and be baking away before we even got up. And she was a drama critic and a poet, so she was an extraordinary person.'

Some people, I suggest to her, prefer to be outsiders: they like to make their lives away from their families and their homes, perhaps because they find them too domineering. Does that explain why she is a senior figure in the British rather than Australian Labour Party? 'I left Australia many, many years ago, when I was a student,' she replies. 'The immediate driving force was that I grew up in Canberra in the 1950s and early 1960s. I suppose I'll get in terrible trouble with the Canberra Times, but in the 1950s it was a very small and boring town.'

A bit Dame Edna, maybe? Hewitt laughs. 'I saw Dame Edna for the first time in Canberra in about 1962. She was wonderful, and she's been wonderful ever since. So yes, it was very suburban, possums. I wanted out.'

Her grandmother had been one of the first woman students at Newnham College in Cambridge, and it was her mother who suggested Patricia apply. She got in, came to Britain and never went back. 'I escaped Canberra,' she says emphatically.

Her family might have been prominent Australians, but she suspects they were never quite in tune with their country. 'My father was a senior civil servant, but he was never part of the establishment. He always challenged it. So I don't think I was really so much an outsider. But however much people assume that if you are a Cabinet minister you must be part of the establishment, I don't feel part of it, and I never have done. It's actually very important for a Labour government that we don't become part of the establishment, and we don't become managerial in the worse sense of the term.'

Hewitt thrived in her adopted country. Like many of her generation, she started out on the left of her party and has drifted gradually towards its centre and then to its right. She first made a name for herself at the National Council for Civil Liberties. She was close to Neil Kinnock, and from 1983 to '87 worked as a press officer for the Labour Party: she was one of the first Labour spin doctors back in the days before Labour was much good at it. She was the policy co-ordinator for Kinnock until 1989, and then the deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Between '94 and '97 she had her one spell in the private sector as the head of research for Andersen Consulting, now spun off as Accenture. After decades on the fringes of politics, she finally became an elected politician in '97 when she became the MP for Leicester West. She moved swiftly into government, becoming a Treasury minister, and then the small business and e-commerce minister at the DTI, where she was right in there, pressing the flesh of the boo.comers and the Lane Foxes before nobody would touch the internet lot with a bargepole.

As a child, Hewitt watched her mother grappling with the demands of raising a family and trying to have a career as well. Hewitt has juggled the same issues herself. One of the interesting moves she has made as the first woman trade and industry minister is to use the platform as a pulpit to criticise companies for how hard they make it for parents to balance family and career. (Her department was one of the sponsors of last year's annual MT Work/Life balance survey and her thinking is interestingly progressive in this area.) She herself is married to a judge, Bill Birtles, and has two teenage children.

How does she cope, I wonder, with such a high-profile career and looking after her children?

'With difficulty,' she replies. 'And if we are honest, that's true for all of us. I'm lucky in that my husband is a lawyer and now a judge, so he is able to spend more time at home than I am. You have to be very clear about where your boundaries are, and you have to make time. My mother was a ferocious time manager, so I grew up with those skills. So what I have always done since I became a minister is to say to the prime minister: Now look, Monday evening I go home and I do the homework shift, and I come back for the 10 o'clock vote. I keep as much of the weekend free for family. I do as much paperwork as I can before the children wake up.'

But why is this country so bad? We have a terrible culture of presentee-ism in the office.

'Absolutely, we do have a real problem,' she replies. 'We have much higher working hours than most of Europe. We have a growing number of mothers working full-time. Part of that is because we have almost no tradition of regulating working hours. In Europe, working hours are set by law, and people work those hours. In Britain, it is much more dispersed. We have more part-time working, but also more very long hours working. We don't want to move to regulating working hours, but we do need to limit very long hours. We've done that with the working time directive and we're going to be extending that.'

She starts talking about one of her civil servants, a father who is working three days a week while his wife works the rest of the week. 'He's just been promoted,' she adds.

Okay, but that's in the DTI. In the private sector we all know it's not so easy.

'Well, it's starting to change. There are wonderful examples of big companies and also very small companies that are introducing more flexible working. And the more we can get the message out to business that cutting the stress-loads of parents can actually make people more effective, the better. Because the levels of stress in the workplace have gone up sharply in the past decade, and one reason for that is this issue of working hours.'

Hewitt mentions a couple of examples: Simon Topsom of the whistle manufacturer J Hudson, and Richard Reed, the co-founder of Innocent, a company that makes fruit smoothies. Both are small, entrepreneurial firms that have managed to devise family-friendly employment policies. She offers them as proof of the fact that flexible working is not just a luxury that can be afforded by giant corporations: small companies can do it as well.

It's a very New Labour-type answer. Lots of good intentions, initiatives, examples and messages, but, of course, progress can be very slow without the go-ahead from the all-controlling Gordon Brown. Most people's experience is that working lives are getting harder. Nor is there much acknowledgment of the Government's failings. Higher taxes, inadequate schools and crumbling transport systems mean that in many families both parents have to work, and have long and difficult journeys to and from those jobs.

Hewitt's priority is attacking the private sector - not fixing the public sector.

She has arrived at the DTI at an interesting moment. Scandals such as Enron and Worldcom have put the ethics of capitalism under the microscope.

It's odd that at this point the Labour industry minister is a woman who's only commercial experience is working for an Andersen spin-off - a firm that now turns out to have been negligent if not dishonest. Is she embarrassed to have worked for them?

'Not at all,' she answers. 'It gave me some exceptional experience in a global business. I was never working in the audit side, and I think even the majority of the people who were working in auditing have been dismayed by what happened in America.

'We are passionate believers in good business, and, OK, it may have taken the Labour Party a little time to come around to this, but we passionately want business to succeed.'

Hewitt may not think business and New Labour are drawing apart, but companies never express themselves as eloquently as when they are spending money.

And they have stopped giving it to Labour. In the second quarter of 2002, the party didn't receive a single corporate donation, although money is so tight for most that political donations are right down the list of priorities.

'She's probably making the best of a very difficult job,' says Ruth Lea, policy director of the Institute of Directors. 'But the problem is, the whole department is a mess of contradictions. We'd like to see a DTI that was waving the flag for business in the Cabinet, but that isn't what it is doing.

'You often feel they are in denial about the red tape,' she adds. 'They listen, but they don't ever want to do anything about it.'

Does Hewitt feel business is going cold on her? 'There's a higher level of noise, certainly,' Hewitt replies. 'The increase in national insurance contributions was an unwelcome surprise to business. But all of them accept we desperately needed to put more money into the NHS. So then the question was about where we got the money from.

'The fundamentals of the relationship I think are sound. I find there is a lot of support for the macro-economic policy, our manufacturing strategy, or support for science and innovation.'

And what about escalating red tape?

'Sure, but I'd much rather they were complaining about regulation than not having time to complain because they are all going bankrupt with double-digit interest rates, which was what was happening a decade ago,' she answers.

'I'm not complacent about red tape, but anyone who has done business on the Continent will say, well, it might be bad here, but it is a nightmare in Europe. Anyone in America will say, well here you have regulation, but in the US you have litigation. There isn't a paradise anywhere in the world.'

Even so, the raw numbers are not good. Hewitt has reminded us of our shortcomings in productivity and been fairly blunt about the poor quality of much of British management - she's hired the Harvard management guru Michael Porter to report on the productivity gap. But the figures show that the UK's productivity is declining, investment is declining, the trade balance is sinking ever deeper into the red, and at some point there will be a price to be paid for all that.

'We have a very long-standing productivity problem in the British economy,' Hewitt replies. 'We have some superb companies, but across the economy as a whole, the average levels are below the best in the world. It comes back to decades of underinvestment, it comes back to our education system, which has neglected basic skills. These are not issues you can turn around in a few years.' That's true. At their worst, DTI problems can look even more intractable than those at the Department for Education.

In listening to her I sense a real passion beneath the surface that she prevents from bubbling up. She started her career as a 1970s Bennite, and there are still traces of that fire in her belly.

In her time at the DTI, one of her highest-profile moments has been her complaint about sexist advertising at the Birmingham Motor Show.

She laughs when I point that out, as if it were of little consequence.

But, I persist, actually you were making an interesting point. Advertising is extraordinarily sexist, and getting more so all the time. Isn't that something an industry minister should be talking about?

'Well ...' she starts out. 'We live in a very sexualised culture. And what's even worse is they call it post-feminist irony. Hah!'

She's on the verge of saying something interesting - although, admittedly, something that might get her into trouble. She pauses, reflects, and moves on to talk about the importance of more women going into engineering jobs, and the thought trails away.

I wish she wouldn't flick that switch quite so often. If she didn't, she'd be a different and more challenging politician. But then she might not be in office very long. And she'd certainly never make chancellor.

< HEWITT IN A MINUTE 1948: Born December 1948. Educated at C of E Girl's Grammar School, Canberra, Australia and Newnham College, Cambridge 1974-83: General secretary, National Council for Civil Liberties 1983-87: Press and broadcasting secretary, the Labour Party 1987-89: Policy co-ordinator to Neil Kinnock 1989-94: Deputy director, Institute for Public Policy Research 1994-97: Director of research, Andersen Consulting 1997: MP for Leicester West 1998-99: Economic Secretary, Treasury 1999-2001: Minister of State, DTI 2001: Secretary of State, DTI

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