Helen Liddell's Biography

Tipped as a future Prime Minister
Not everybody was happy at the prospect however.

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She may have all the charm, grace, and diplomacy of a tank but some talk of her as a future Prime Minister

Scotland on Sunday

She is not, as the old saying goes, the sort of woman you would go home to with a broken pay packet. Yet very soon now, the whole of Scotland - and most particularly its newly elected Holyrood parliament - could be feeling the blunt end of her matriarchal tongue.

Helen Liddell, one time BBC reporter, Robert Maxwell aide and steamy novel writer, is destined for political greatness. No doubt about that. There is a widespread expectation that over the course of the next few days, Tony Blair will send her northwards to start easing herself into the job of Scottish Secretary.

Her promotion to Cabinet will not happen instantly: this is a long game, not a quick fix. The master plan is to give Liddell the job as Minister of State at St Andrew's House, allowing her free reign to use her pugnacious, combative political skills to try and neutralise the SNP in the run-up to next year's Holyrood elections.

With Liddell delegated to go for Salmond's jugular, Dewar will be freed at last to soar into the clouds and think great thoughts, working on policy and campaigning for the Scottish parliament.

If Labour win next May's Scottish parliament elections - which of course depends on how well the new girl can head off the SNP at the pass - then Dewar will become First Minister at Holyrood. Liddell will the move seamlessly into his post as Secretary of State for Scotland.

The scenario goes like this: The Scottish Office education minister Brian Wilson, of who so much was expected in government, would probably be better off in London where his anti-devolution sentiments would not jar as much as they do in Scotland and is likely to be shifted to a job in John Prescott's super ministry.

Dr John Reid, MP for Motherwell and another rising star, has scored well at defence as is still a runner for the number two job in Scotland and is highly regarded by Blair. He would certainly take the fight to the SNP but the smart money is still on Liddell getting the nod.

Since she came into government as economic secretary to the Treasury last year, Liddell's performance has been feisty and highly impressive. Certainly the 47-year old MP for Airdrie and Shotts has plenty of friends in politics. In the years she has spent grubbing herself up from the smoke filled rooms of the Lanarkshire Labour party, she has made plenty of enemies too. Neither bothers her unduly. These days she is a political loner, relying not on her Networking skills but on her track record in government and her intellect to win promotion.

Both have already impressed Blair, who regards her as one of the most competent and promising members of his government. Earlier this year he took her to Washington to meet President Clinton for a policy brainstorming session and told people they should 'get to know her'. Unsurprisingly, her star has been in the ascendancy ever since.

Sharp-suited, hard-faced and with hair that often looks as if it is wired direct into a mains electricity supply, Liddell is the caricaturist's dream. Politically, she has all the charm, grace and diplomacy of a Challenger tank going downhill in top gear: anything which stands in her way simply gets flattened.

Earlier this year, The Sunday Times described her, incorrectly but amusingly as a cross between Miss Jean Brodie and Lulu. Her fellow Labourites know her by other names. To her friends, she is Little Nell. Her enemies call her Lady Macbeth or Stalin's Granny. But even her enemies - of whom she has plenty - acknowledge her talents.

Within Labour circles, she is feared, respected, admired and loathed in roughly equal measure. Liddell, like Mrs Thatcher (with whom comparisons are often chillingly similar), has learned that to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics, you often have to be more masculine than the men. 'She's an old style Labour operator,' says one detractor, 'right down to her balls.' She was born and brought up in the tough Lanarkshire mining community of Coatdyke, where membership of the Labour party was not so much applied for as stamped on your cradle. Her bus driver father took her to her first party meeting at the age of seven, and in her teens she lied about her age to be allowed into the smoke-filled rooms.

The young Liddell quickly learned how to master the trade-offs, the uneasy compromises and the pulpit-speaking skills that remain enshrined within the canon law of the West of Scotland Labour movement. She studied economics at Strathclyde, spent time at the STUC, and then joined the BBC in Glasgow as economics correspondent.

After two years she left, at the tender age of 27, to become General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party. Putting a woman into this particular Kremlin was anathema to many of the wizened old union barons, but she excelled at the job.

After that came a post viewed as her biggest career mistake - the job of Director of Corporate Affairs at the Daily Record under Robert Maxwell. She is not fondly remembered at Anderston Quay, where her characteristic ruthlessness grated against the job-for-life ethos of the time and where the most endearing memory remains her work as a flunkie for the fat man during the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Maxwell drowned and Liddell, unstained by his sticky end or by the pensions scandal which broke after it, moved on. She became a business development director in her native Lanarkshire before the sudden death of her political mentor and friend John Smith in 1994 thrust her right back into the political spotlight. She was chosen to fight his Monklands East seat in the by-election. It turned out to be a horrible and bitter campaign, fought against the background of allegations of corruption and nepotism in the local council and with the SNP constantly breathing down her neck.

When Liddell realised the reputation of the council was becoming an electoral burden, she stopped supporting it and dumped it instead. It was supreme cynicism, but the tactic worked, and she scraped home with a wafer thin majority.

By all accounts, she has excelled at the Treasury, impressing civil servants with her grasp and her single-mindedness. There is a nightmare scenario for Liddell if she ends up as Scottish Secretary next May: that the SNP rather than Labour manage to seize the Holyrood administration and Salmond becomes First Minister. If that were to happen, she would have a dreadful time. The nationalists would blame her for everything, her political career would be on the line, and she would have to try and work with a hostile SNP group for which she would have a gut ideological hatred.

Let us assume though, that Labour do bring the Holyrood trophy home. If Dewar is appointed First Minister with Liddell then stepping into his shoes, the relationship between the two will be a fascinating one. 'Helen is respected but not popular, while Donald is popular but not respected,' says one Westminster insider, 'Until now, she seems to have studiously avoided being tarred as a Scottish MP - for instance, you rarely see her campaigning for devolution.'

Once in Cabinet, Liddell will face the most exciting and challenging task of her political life. The job of Scottish Secretary will be an entirely new one, and she will have the luxury of defining the role. But trying to act as the Cabinet's overlord in Edinburgh will bring her into even more open conflict with Scottish Labour. 'The really interesting thing,' said a Commons source, 'is that Helen is one of only about six people in the Labour movement who is being currently thought of as a future Prime Minister. Certainly when her name comes up in that context, nobody laughs.'

Not anywhere within Liddell's line of sight, anyway.