U.K.'s first black Cabinet Minister

Paul Boateng

Paul Boateng  

LONDON MAY 29. Britain today got its first ever black Cabinet Minister when Paul Boateng, a rising star of Labour's depleted Left-wing and known for his strong views on racism, was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury in a reshuffle following the dramatic resignation of the controversial Transport Secretary Stephen Byers.

Mr. Boateng, who was Financial Secretary before his promotion, is of Ghananian descent and his appointment was regarded as politically significant in the prevailing racially-charged climate. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was seen to be responding to the growing anxiety among ethnic minorities following the recent electoral success of the anti-immigrant British National Party (BNP), and a controversy over the tough language used by his ministers in relation to immigrants. At least two senior ministers have been accused of borrowing the racially-coded rhetoric of the far Right in what has been denounced as an attempt to `pander' to racist groups.

Observers wondered whether Mr. Boateng, despite his undoubted promise, would have been rewarded with a cabinet post so early in his career had Mr. Blair not been under pressure to assure ethnic minorities who form a crucial vote bank for the Labour Party. Mr Boateng's "fast-track'' promotion was welcomed by anti-race activists as a success for their campaign for greater representation of ethnic groups in high-profile positions. A former civil rights campaigner, he was first elected to Parliament in 1987 and when Labour came to power in 1997 he was appointed junior health minister. Later he moved to the Home Office, and last year he joined the Treasury.

In domestic political circles and the media, however, it was not the rise of Mr. Boateng but the fall of Mr. Byers that was the subject of animated discussion-and gossip. A staunch Blairite, almost in the same league as Peter Mandelson but minus his charisma, Mr. Byers had been dogged by a series of headline-grabbing controversies ever since his then adviser Jo Moore sent an email to her colleagues on September 11 suggesting that this was a "good day to bury bad news'' about the transport department. The idea was that on a day when everyone would be reading about the terrorist attacks in U.S. nobody would notice bad news about transport. Then came his difficulties with his communications chief, Martin Sixsmith, his controversial handling of the company which runs the train network, and finally his remarks on euro which an embarrassed Downing Street sharply contradicted.

In recent months, Mr. Byers became a figure of ridicule as he was accused of `spin', `deceit' and `lying' to Parliament. Mr. Blair stood by him even as increasingly he became an embarrassment prompting speculation that he would be dropped in the next reshuffle. On Monday, he met Mr. Blair and offered to resign; and on Tuesday while the Prime Minister was away in Rome he announced his resignation-dramatically at a press conference at 10, Downing Street. He admitted that he might have made mistakes but was "not a liar''. Mr. Blair said that when it came to important matter "Steve has taken the right decisions.''

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