John Hutton is the third member of a now influential political triumvirate. Patrick Butler reports on the new junior health minister's rise to power

A great gasp of 'who?' could be heard in NHS policy circles when John Hutton was named as junior health minister with responsibility for mental health and social care.

Mr Hutton has barely had an impact on the wider political world, let alone the NHS in his six and a half years as MP for Barrow-in-Furness. But Westminster watchers are not surprised by his promotion.

He is a Blairite loyalist with impeccable northern Labour connections and a reputation as a bright and able politician. He is also the 'third man' of a talented trio of young, ambitious Tyneside Blairites.

Health minister Alan Milburn (with whom he shared a house when they arrived in London as rookie MPs in 1992) and Treasury chief secretary Stephen Byers (a fellow former Newcastle Polytechnic law lecturer) are close political friends.

All three cut their political teeth in the north-east during the 1980s. Mr Hutton chaired Hexham Labour Party, which chose Mr Byers as its candidate for the 1983 election, and stood unsuccessfully for Penrith and Borders in 1987 before entering Parliament five years later.

Of the three, Mr Hutton has prospered the least. 'He's not been part of the mafioso in the same way that Alan and Stephen have in terms of preferment. I can see him being thought of highly. He's personable, likeable and intelligent. But he hasn't shone in the same way,' says one acquaintance.

It's not for want of the right ideological stuff. 'I see myself in the centre of the party in the mainstream of opinion. I am very supportive of what Tony Blair is trying to do. There is no future for us in going into a corner and reciting mouldy old creeds from the 1930s,' he said in 1994.

More recently, he was lambasted for excessive loyalty to Mr Blair for lobbing him tame questions in the Commons.

After one such lob earlier this year, Times sketchwriter Matthew Parris wrote: 'To describe it as toadying would be to invite a group libel action from toads.'

London-born, and educated at Oxford University, Mr Hutton was politicised after moving to Newcastle in 1980.

'There were massive redundancies due to heartlessness right at the centre of government and I found that... shocking. It turned me from a passive member of the Labour Party into... an active one,' he recalls.

Ann Galbraith, the former chair of Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary trust, was a colleague of Mr Hutton at Newcastle Polytechnic law school.

She remembers him as 'ebullient', an 'instinctively agreeable person' and 'hugely popular' with his students.

'He was quite charismatic, and for this reason, and also because he tended to lecture in subjects like civil liberties, which students find interesting, he had an almost cult following,' she says.

She also recalls how he displayed great kindness to her after she suffered a family bereavement. 'He went out of his way, when my mother died, to sit down and chat to me. He was very empathetic. From a younger colleague who did not know me very well, I was very struck by the gesture he made.'

After winning his seat, a marginal, from the Tories in 1992, Mr Hutton has devoted himself largely to constituency issues. Barrow-in-Furness is the home of VSEL, which specialises in nuclear submarines. Mr Hutton is a vociferous supporter of Trident, as well as diversification into non-war industries.

His pronouncements on health have been few, but informed by personal insight. In 1992, speaking in a Health of the Nation debate, he noted how, after 8,000 redundancies in two years, he had seen at first hand the effects of economic deprivation on the health of his constituents.

He was scathing about the Conservative government's intention to launch a health promotion strategy that 'fails to give proper attention to significant factors such as unemployment, economic deprivation and poor housing conditions'.

In the same speech he talked of his experience of the death of his second son from spina bifida, and how recognition of the value of 'proper bereavement services' in health promotion can provide a support to the 'physical and mental health' of the bereaved.

'I was told by caring professionals in the NHS that I was young and that my family and I could look forward to having more children. I was told, in effect, there was nothing to worry about. That was not the result of callous indifference on the part of the profession... it was the result of a lack of efficient and proper training.'

In 1995, he spoke of his anxieties over the private finance initiative. There was 'evidence that PFI is becoming a vehicle not for genuine partnership between private and public sectors, but for a takeover of the public by the private sector, which would be a regrettable development'.

Although he supported 'a successful PFI' he was worried about 'stoking up revenue problems for many public sector organisations in the future'.

He was also set against privatising services. 'I do not want management services... to be contracted out to people outside the NHS.'

After the mini-reshuffle in the wake of the Ron Davies affair, Mr Hutton has been thrown in at the deep end, tasked with launching a mental health strategy paper and a controversial review of the 1983 Mental Health Act.

So farewell, Paul Boateng. The man who has left Mr Hutton with an enormous policy agenda had won over the mental health lobby by the time of his departure, despite some fundamental policy differences.

'There was a sense he was a bully who didn't listen to professionals, but that had changed by the end,' says Sainsbury Centre director Matt Muijen.

Mind director Judi Clements says that after a tricky start Mr Boateng had proved his commitment to mental health, especially on ethnic minority issues.

Mr Hutton's frosty reception at the Mind annual conference last week shows he will need all his charisma and talents to prosper.