Underrated: Frank Field
In 1997, Tony Blair made Field the Minister for Welfare Reform, working under Harriet Harman as Secretary of State for Social Security. In his memoir, A Journey, Blair admits that this turned out to be “a kind of ‘dating agency from hell’ mistake”:
Harriet was not really a policy wonk and this portfolio required a lot of wonkery. Frank was not really politically astute and it required a lot of political astuteness . . . I removed Harriet in the July reshuffle . . . When I refused to make Frank Secretary of State, he resigned. It was embarrassing, and though I both really liked and respected Frank — a genuine free independent spirit — I was also relieved. Some are made for office, some aren’t. He wasn’t. Simple as that.
One notes how Blair attempts, with characteristic skill, to sugar his self-serving account by ladling a large dollop of praise over Field, while also blaming him for being useless.
The truth is surely that the enrichissez-vous mentality of the Blairites was anathema to Field, and a harmonious working relationship with them was never very likely. Field is an Anglican of a somewhat puritanical disposition: he doesn’t see the need for all that money. Until he laughs, there is something thin-lipped, a hint of French revolutionary mercilessness, in his expression. He stands as a rebuke to a careerist political class which pretends to be uninterested in the fruits of office but fills its pockets whenever it can.
He got on well with Margaret Thatcher: an additional reason for his own side to regard him as suspect. He is also on this magazine’s advisory board, and an occasional contributor to its pages. And he warned from an early stage that traditional Labour voters were deeply worried about uncontrolled immigration from the European Union: a truth middle-class Labour MPs even now find impossible to accept.
Field is that curious figure, a rebellious conformist. He wants his party to stand up for the patriotic, respectable beliefs of millions of people who are never invited to dinner in Islington. If Labour had any sense, it would be listening to him instead of ignoring him.