N ews of Andrew Smith's sudden departure and the appointment of Alan Johnson as Work and Pensions Secretary turned the nation's attention yet again to the Brown
Blair feud which has been bubbling with increasing vigour over the past year. But what exactly can we expect from the new Blairite pensions minister?
On the face of it, Johnson has the potential to make big waves in pensions in the next few years. There were rumours last week that Number 10 was working on a plan for every worker in Brit-ain to contribute to a state-run pension.
It is understood that Blair wants to replace Brown's means-tested benefits and retirement schemes with a single state pension that workers contribute to through National Insurance – a plan expected to be strongly resisted by the Treasury, where Brown is working on proposals of his own.
The scheme has been guided by pension adviser Gareth Davis but Johnson is believed to be key in its framing. With commentators asserting that the appointment of Johnson was made to spearhead a new approach in the hitherto Brown-controlled pension arena, the potential for the pension debate to hot up is significant. Johnson has recently been described as “a loyal Blairite tank on Mr Brown's lawn”.
Money Marketing has learned that only last week, after less than five days in the job, Johnson had already started directly contacting the boards of major life companies to ask them to put together policy proposals. He has asked many of the country's life office directors to provide their views and suggestions on pension compulsion, pension reform, stakeholder, pension credit and pension simplification.
Some political lobbyists believe we now have someone who finally has some true understanding of the need for a long-term solution that heavily involves the private sector and with Brown on the back foot and Johnson already working on a pension strategy paper, it is starting to look like some serious pension policy changes are on the horizon.
But there is some cause for concern. In his first major address at last week's TUC conference, Johnson played the popular line, ruling out raising the state pension age from 65 to 70 and conceding to TUC demands to legislate in the Pensions Bill to ensure that 50 per cent of trustees on company schemes are nominated by members. However, he did not agree to demands that employers pay a sum equivalent to 10 per cent of employee's gross earnings into a pension fund.
These decisions are not altogether surprising. Some commentators believe he has stepped off the mark with political rather than practical or tough solutions.
Johnson had a tough start in life. His mother died in 1962 when he was 12, leaving him and his 15-year-old sister. His father had walked out on his family three years earlier and was nowhere to be found. After extensive interviews with a child welfare officer, his sister was allowed to look after him and they were given a council flat in Battersea. He later briefly pursued his dream of becoming a rock star before he threw it in for a sensible job as a postman.
Like many Labour politicians, Johnson gained his first political experience in trade unions. After working as a postman, he spent five years working for the Communication Workers' Union and became general secretary of the CWU before being elected MP for Kingston-upon-Hull and Hessle in 1997.
The highlights of his trade union career were leading a successful campaign against Post Office privatisation and a major role in getting compensation for trawlermen who lost their jobs in the Cod Wars of the mid-1970s.
His former union colleague, present CWU deputy general secretary Jeannie Drake, will lead pension debating for the TUC, providing Johnson not only with a familiar face but a known quantity in a key negotiating position.
The glaringly obvious gap is that Johnson has no pension form at all. However much of a heavy hitter he was in his union days, pension issues in his time were not the subject of grief that they are now.
Insiders say Johnson sees his role as his chance to make a name for himself and that he has been briefed by Blair to make a real go at it, laying the groundwork for a shift in power.
If you assume that Johnson is pushing Blair's single state pension scheme, then he is bound to clash with Brown at some point. Some commentators wonder whether Blair will back the Secretary for Work and Pensions when the chips are down, remembering how pensions minister Frank Field was dropped in the late 1990s when his reform proposals proved too radical.
However, other commentators believe today's distinctly different Whitehall climate almost guarantees that Johnson will have the PM's support. More and more people are backing the idea that Brown's influence is waning and there is an argument that Blair will back Johnson to the hilt.
The tide looks to be turning. Until recently, there has been an astonishing degree of unanimity everywhere except in the Government that Brown's means' testing must eventually go. Now it seems the stage could be set for a dramatic turn-round in Government policy and perhaps Johnson can carry it off.
Born: May 1950, London.
Lives: Yorkshire and London
Career: Former postman; 1987-92: full-time officer for the CWU; 1992-95: general secretary of the CWU; 1995: joint general secretary of the CWU; MP for Kingston-upon-Hull and Hessle since 1997; 1997-99: PPS to Dawn Primarolo MP; 1999-2001: Parliamentary UnderSecretary at the DTI; 2001-03: trade and Industry minister; 2003-04: education minister; 2004: Work and Pensions Secretary Interests: Member of Amnesty International, Make Votes Count and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform Likes: Reading, music, cookery and sport