Margaret Hodge must sometimes look at colleagues who've made it to the cabinet and wonder what might have been. When Labour was collectively getting its act together in the late 1980s, she was, as the long-serving leader of Islington Council, only slightly less prominent than her then next-door neighbour Tony Blair. Today she is decidedly low-key, battling it out in the trenches at the Department for Education and Employment amid the faceless battalions of junior ministers.
Her eclipse came about mainly because Hodge entered parliament only in June 1994, a long time after those she describes as 'my contemporaries' - David Blunkett and Jack Straw, both now at the Downing Street top table.
She was waiting until her four children grew up. There is not much you can tell her about the dilemmas of working mothers caught between career and family.
'I made choices,' she says. 'You can't pretend that having children doesn't change your life. It does. If House of Commons hours had been different, perhaps I might have thought about it earlier, but I have no regrets.'
Hodge's experience - albeit lived out in the cocooned world of the Islington bourgeoisie with a nanny and a supportive husband who runs his own law practice - makes her a fitting spokesperson for the government's much-vaunted plans to alter Britain's working practices: the so-called work/life balance that is the jewel in the crown of an otherwise dullish ministerial brief. In the past this was part of the 'family friendly' policies, but New Labour is nothing if not adept at rebranding. Work/life insists that the question is not just about working mothers. It concerns everyone with a job.
Work/life is, Margaret Hodge says, 'an issue whose time has come'. You might be forgiven for thinking that she would say that, since it is her first chance in ages to make a splash on the national stage, but the weight of evidence to back up her claim is compelling. Many appear fed up with Britain's long-hours culture. Of the seven million people in the European Union who work more than 48 hours a week, half of them are in this country.
A recent survey by the Manchester School of Management found a sample of 5,000 managers increasingly anxious about working lives that trespass into evenings and weekends. Nearly all respondents - and these were people supposedly in charge of setting working patterns in the corporate structure - felt that their jobs were damaging their health, their marriages and their family.
Hodge is more than happy to talk about her own experiences in the work/life struggle. 'When my kids were young, I was working, but as leader at Islington.
Because I was the boss I could make the rules. And they were strict to allow everyone a work/life balance. No meetings, for example, between 3.30pm and 7.30pm, which is a crucial time with children.'
When local parties were selecting for the 1992 General Election, she was approached for a number of seats. One in particular was very tempting.
'I remember my daughter, who was 17 at the time and doing her A-levels, saying to me: 'Don't you dare, mum, or I'll never talk to you again.' It was a tough one, but I said no.'
But she is careful always to stress that this is not just a women's question.
'It may be driven by women's participation in the labour market - something like 53% of women with children under five now have part-time or full-time jobs, a 20% increase in the last decade - but its impact is right across men and women, families with children and anyone with responsibilities for adult care.' With such a broad sweep, she accepts that a 'huge cultural change' in business life is going to be necessary to bring to an end the British love affair with the Protestant work ethic.
Only some 5% of British companies match up to the government's own guidelines on work/life. To win over the other 95%, Hodge knows she is going to need more than fine words about work/life balance and the picture it conjures up of contented families with more quality time than they can fit in the ergonomic storage racks of their people-carrier. Indeed, there is already a creeping suspicion among some political observers that the voter-friendly Hodge is cynically talking up - or being cynically recycled to talk up - a policy that will never be implemented by Blair and Brown because it runs counter to cherished New Labour economic values. In short, they suggest that work/life is all empty rhetoric. 'This issue,' Polly Toynbee has written, 'cuts right down the ambivalent fault-line at the heart of New Labour. Tony Blair, new man, arch-promulgator of family and community life, is also the one who forged New Labour's identity by stamping down trade unions and siding loudly with business at every opportunity. His government's hymns of praise to work - a broom or spade in every hand - have drowned out the family-friendly stuff.'
Business too has its doubts. When it hears Margaret Hodge promoting employers' manuals on work/life balance or launching a challenge fund that offers firms free consultancy advice on how to create a more flexible workplace, it sees additional red tape and increased costs. Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors has become adept at presenting every new Hodge announcement in this area as an attack on small and medium-sized businesses. 'With 95% of businesses in this country having fewer than 10 employees, all this talk of flexible time and parental leave is driving employers to despair. Some are even giving up,' Lea says.
The minister rebuts the charge that she is being sent by her political masters on a high-profile pre-election wild goose chase. Once challenged, she makes it plain that she has lost none of her polish and remains one of those politicians whom you instinctively want to believe. Moreover, she shares with Mo Mowlam what used to be called the common touch - a potent mix of personal warmth, gentle self-mockery and harmless indiscretions.
After half an hour in her company, she made me feel like her best friend, so much so that I almost invited her round to dinner as I left.
And she can turn on the passion. She dismisses at a stroke talk of tension between 'the feminised DFEE' and 'the macho DTI', which has been dragging its feet on implementing such family-friendly legislation as the 48-hour week directive. She is honestly - a word that she uses once too often for comfort - not at loggerheads with Stephen Byers; rather it is a two-pronged approach: he delivers the legislative framework for a better work/life balance while she coaxes and cajoles business that it is in their interest to sign up. It's a variation on the theme of nice cop, nasty cop.
'We are setting in place a legislative framework, but I honestly don't believe that regulation is enough. We have, for example, the strongest regulatory framework on racial discrimination ever, and yet discrimination against people from the black and ethnic minority communities in the labour market is hardly better today than it was a generation ago. If regulation were genuinely the answer, we would have solved it, and if I honestly thought there was an easy regulatory answer to the work/life balance, I'd make sure it was implemented.'
So how is she going to bring industry round? 'The only way is to show business that it is in their bottom-line interest to have a better work/life balance. So if they recruit a bright young woman graduate, train her up only to lose her at 30 when she has a baby, they are potentially persuadable that it would be better to let her, for example, work flexible hours in order to keep her.'
The Hodge prescription is heavy on large doses of good example. She talks animatedly of flexible practices at Asda as a beacon for the larger employer to latch on to, and, at the other end of the scale, quotes a small Norfolk firm of 135 employees who make mouse mats. 'It is run by a guy who lives in the village where we have our country cottage. Everybody is allowed to choose their own flexible working hours. They work in teams, and so as long as each team gets its job done, they can arrange the details among themselves. There are lots of good ideas there.'
And the litany of examples of best practice extends from her private to her public back yard. She points to efforts she is making with Margaret Jay, Minister for Women, to ensure that policies encouraging a better work/life balance are introduced across all government departments and in the public sector generally. So far, however, the House of Commons has been resistant to their reforming zeal. Despite the introduction of the 100 or so Blair babes, it retains - according to the Labour MP Tess Kingham, who recently announced that the place had put her off standing again - the atmosphere of a men's club, with late sittings, a bar-room culture, no creche or baby-changing facilities, and a ban, upheld by the Speaker Betty Boothroyd, on women breast-feeding there. And all this when there is a woman, Margaret Beckett, as Leader of the House.
For once, Hodge appears wrong-footed. I don't need to be psychic to deduce that Beckett is not perhaps her favourite colleague. 'There is undoubtedly a problem with men,' she says, regaining her poise. 'How do you stop men slapping each other on the back for working longer and longer hours? What can the government do? What levers can we use to promote cultural change?'
Perhaps, I suggest, hoping to catch her while she is still off-balance, if Tony Blair hadn't hummed and hawed about taking paternity leave on the arrival of little Leo, it might have offered the best possible example to men everywhere. 'Yes, I agree that paternity leave is very important. But in one sense that debate is a very false one.' She is now resolutely back on message. 'It's dead easy when your children are small to carve out time to spend with them. They turn on to you the moment you come in so you can arrange your time with them around your own needs. It gets much more difficult when they are doing their exams at school and they suddenly need your help with an essay and you're not there. How do you plan for that? So what we are after is flexibility for parents throughout the life of children. They don't stop needing you at the age of five.'
Hodge has neatly sidestepped having to criticise her prime minister and, before I can return to the question, she is zooming away on the subject of men. 'If these policies about work/life balance are to get through to men, then they have to be owned by chief executives and boards who are overwhelmingly male, rather than by human resources, who tend to be female.
'That is why our business-led alliance promoting work/life, launched in April, is so valuable. It's chaired by Peter Ellwood of Lloyds TSB and is made up of men. I think there is only one woman. It's another way of setting an example. Here are big companies that are saying it can work in your interests.'
The work/life balance of Hodge's own diary is beginning to impinge on our meeting. She is drawing to a close but seems anxious to stress once again the timeliness of her campaign. 'My kids are just entering the labour market now and they're not as mad as I was. Their attitude is very different. They're into saying there is a balance we want to strike between life and work.'
It's hard not to wish both them and their mother success, because it would undoubtedly bring with it a more attractive employment environment. But if the beaming Mrs Hodge who sees me out of her office is to overturn the working habits of several centuries, and finally against the odds win a seat at the Cabinet table in the process, she will need to draw on a good deal more than her own, not inconsiderable, powers of persuasion.