news focus: In the wake of Stephen Byers' resignation, Laura Donnelly charts the rise of David Lammy from Tottenham schoolboy, raised by a single mum, via Harvard Law School to junior health minister

Published: 07/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5808 Page 12 13

As bright young things go, David Lammy is almost over-qualified. He's especially good at being young - he was the youngest MP in Commons when he was elected to the Tottenham seat following the death of veteran left-winger Bernie Grant in April 2000. In 1994, he was also the youngest barrister to qualify - which more than covers the 'bright' part of the equation.

And he's so New Labour it hurts.

Now he's a junior health minister - and all at the age of 29. And what looks like a meteoric rise appears to have only just began.

When Mr Lammy was first elected, The Sun predicted he would be Britain's first black prime minister.And Mr Lammy is nearly as good at firsts as he is at being what the BBC call the 'great black hope'. In 1996, he was the first black Briton to attend Harvard law school, from where he graduated with a masters in law.

Even before he became an MP, Mr Lammy squeezed in a brief career in local government - spending a time-efficient seven weeks at the Greater London Assembly before he was persuaded away to the joys of constituency work.

In 2000, the death of Mr Grant left a vacancy for the Tottenham seat, which the late MP's white wife, Sharon Grant, wanted to contest. Mr Lammy was selected by 52 per cent on the first ballot. It was a relief for Labour - Mr Lammy was seen as the acceptable face of Blairism. In the days before the party voted for its candidate, the campaigning from Millbank was seen to step up, with prime minister's wife Cherie Blair and then Cabinet Office minister Mo Mowlam adding their support to the campaign for the Tottenhamborn boy. Mr Lammy defended his form: 'I am from the area and I am not some kind of Millbank stooge or lobby fodder, ' he told The Guardian at the time. He won the byelection, with 53 percent of the vote - but on a turnout of just 25 per cent.

Once in the Commons, he made a swift impact. After a year, he was promoted to parliamentary private secretary to education secretary Estelle Morris.

As well as his work on education, he has taken some stances that are not uniformly popular. He has spoken out on the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, questioned the Crown Prosecution Service's decision on the death of Roger Sylvester in police custody, and made speeches in defence of oneparent families and social workers.

But what will Mr Lammy bring to health? He inherits ex-junior health minister Hazel Blears' portfolio (see box above) - notably public and patient involvement - along with emergency care and NHS Direct.

Those who know him suggest his 'precise mind' could be useful in dealing with the intricacies of the long-running saga of public and patient involvement. His training as a medical ethics and negligence lawyer will help the government negotiate legislation through Parliament.

It is also a role for which personal integrity and credibility would be more than useful. Here, Mr Lammy is seen as a bit of a mixed blessing - the perception of him as someone 'airlifted' in by Labour to save any embarrassment in Tottenham has not been forgotten. And the fact that threequarters of his constituents failed to make it to the ballot box when he was originally elected suggests he still has some learning to do where public involvement is concerned.

But youth is on his side. And Mr Lammy goes to great lengths to sell himself as a man of the people.

Last year, introducing prime minister Tony Blair at the Labour party's spring conference, he recalled his own experiences growing up in a single-parent family. 'I think back to my own mother, on her own, raising a young family, holding down two jobs, an escalating mortgage in an environment of decay and social tension.'

He is keen to make politics more accessible to the youth - something which may auger well for his public involvement portfolio.

Mixmag magazine voted him fourth in its chart ofWestminster's 10 grooviest MPs and his appearance on rap DJ Tim Westwood's Radio 1 show appeared to boost his ratings, alongside 'groovers' such as Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn and Ms Mowlam.

In March, Mr Lammy won a few column inches in the Daily Telegraph when he invited soul singer Alicia Keys to the Commons as part of an initiative to increase inner-city teenagers' interest in politics.

The visit, under the auspices of the all-party Commons music group, sparked complaints from colleagues who suggested it commercialised the Commons by giving the singer free publicity.

Westminster authorities said no rules had been broken, and at the time Mr Lammy complained: 'There have been times when I wished Parliament was just a bit more modern, a bit more hip, a bit more relevant to people of my generation and the young people of this country.' l Clipped wings: Super Cooper's sideways move Yvette Cooper leaves the Department of Health with a 'sideways'move to the Lord Chancellor's Department - possibly to take up the poisoned chalice of a Euro referendum - having largely disappointed in her public health role.

The high flyer, dubbed 'Super'Cooper when she became public health minister, aged just 30, in 1999, failed to make the impact many expected.With a key Labour manifesto public health commitment, the ban on tobacco advertising, eventually driven through by the Liberal Democrats in the Lords after the government dragged its feet, Ms Cooper was denied a major coup. Instead, she has had to take the flak during the MMR row and endure the wrath of public health professionals over the four-year delay to the government's sexual health and HIV strategy, which finally appeared in August last year.

The belated inclusion of public health in the modernisation action teams that drew up the NHS plan was seen as a step forward, and led to the first national targets on reducing inequalities in February 2001.But the delayed report of the chief medical officer's Project to Strengthen Public Health did little to maintain momentum, providing more of a summary of the government's efforts so far than raising a new agenda.Public health professionals have also raised concerns at lack of detail about the level and resourcing of the public health function in primary care trusts, while a programme to 'reposition'health improvement programmes, renamed 'health improvement and modernisation plans'- seems to have little impact, with no mention in Delivering the NHS Plan.