Tom Richmond: This charming man will be a loss to Labour

FOR a man who held five pivotal Cabinet briefs under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson – who dramatically resigned as Shadow Chancellor this week for personal family reasons – attracts relatively few mentions in the biographies of the New Labour era.

Johnson, the West Hull and Hessle MP, is mentioned just twice in Blair's tome, primarily because he effectively held the former PM's hand when he confirmed his resignation plans on a school visit in London. He received just one name-check in Peter Mandelson's inside account.

Some would say, therefore, that Johnson's reported influence, since his elevation to the Cabinet in 2004, has been exaggerated. It has not been.

The reason Johnson does not feature is a simple one: proud of his working class roots, and his rise through the political ranks, he had little time for the tribal, Blair-Brown politics that fatally undermined New Labour.

He was an individual who believed the job in hand was far more important than personality politics, a trait that others – most notably Ed Balls, the new Shadow Chancellor – should heed. More politicians are needed who are respectful of all views while remaining committed to social justice. Indeed, it is a sad reflection on contemporary politics that a talented individual like Johnson, with so much to offer as Britain emerges from the recession, cannot take a sabbatical – whether it be one, two or three months – while he addresses his family difficulties.

Politics has become a merciless business, and David Cameron, the Prime Minister, appeared gleeful when he pointed out Johnson's absence from Labour's front bench during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. He must regret that now.

However, Johnson was, nevertheless, a steely operator who would have added great realism to Labour's economic credibility. His biggest success probably came at the Department of Health when he oversaw measures to reduce hospital infections, and persuade GP surgeries to extend their opening hours, But his most significant legacy, perhaps, came from his stint as a junior education minister when he pushed through reforms to introduce student top-up fees in the teeth of backbench opposition. Effectively, he rescued the Blair government because the boorish Charles Clarke, the then Education Secretary, was incapable of garnering sufficient support. Johnson later joked of this effort as a "charm offensive", adding that he had supplied the charm, while Clarke had been "offensive".

As the Lib Dems struggle to come to terms with the fallout from their own volte-face on tuition fees it is, perhaps, indicative of Johnson's modus operandi that he emerged from this issue with his reputation intact – he was a politician who it was very difficult to dislike. And there are all too few of them.

THESE are not happy times for Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary who is advocating shorter jail terms and ignored warnings about staff shortages ahead of the riots at Ford Open Prison.

He now has two mutinous Yorkshire Tory MPs to contend with. Philip Davies, the Shipley MP, is aghast that 241 offenders with more than 101 previous convictions, and 13 career criminals with more than 200 past offences to their name, escaped a jail term for shoplifting. He's right. North Yorkshire MP Anne McIntosh has also weighed in, pointing out that fixed penalty notices were not an adequate punishment when the reconviction rate for shoplifters is 78.3 per cent.

Such overtures appear to be making little impact on a Government which appears ambivalent to McIntosh's notion that "theft is a crime against society" as the annual cost of shoplifting, to the retail industry, rises to 1bn a year.

GIVEN that the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was marred by accusations that the Tories gave the Lib Dems an easy ride to preserve the coalition, the forthcoming Barnsley Central poll will be even more uncomfortable. Lib Dem Christopher Wiggin won just six votes more than his Tory counterpart, Piers Tempest, last year. Which party, therefore, will emerge as the true challenger to Labour following Eric Illsley's criminal conviction over fraudulent expense claims?

CAN anyone explain why John Bercow, the Speaker, is incapable of defending himself in public – and, instead, has to rely on his Labour-supporting wife, Sally, to answer claims that he is not up to the job? Her self-promotion is nauseating when Bercow is, in fact, politicising his supposedly neutral role with various comments, most recently his ill-informed utterances in defence of the hunting ban.

I'M not sure Leeds-raised David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, came up with the best analogy when his possible directorship of Sunderland Football Club became public. "I always said Labour should do on the political field what Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger advised on the football field: don't worry about the opposition," said Miliband. Just as Labour has not won a national election since 2005, Arsenal have not won a trophy for five years.

HERE'S an example, a privilege to witness, of how top-class sportsmen should conduct themselves.

On a wind-swept and winnerless afternoon at Huntingdon, AP McCoy, the 15-times champion jockey and BBC Sports Personality of the Year winner, emerged from the sanctuary of the weighing room between races wrapped in layers of warm clothing to protect himself from the chill. Why? To personally greet a group of 20 primary age schoolchildren who were completing a project at the track, to sign autographs and pose for photos.

Can you imagine a footballer doing likewise at half-time in a big match?

No, I can not.