While those in FE and skills wait with bated breath to find out how new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Skills Minister Nick Boles view the sector, Alastair Thomson considers what can be expected of the Tory duo.
Although the removal of Michael Gove as Education Secretary dominated much of the reshuffle coverage, a look behind the immediate reactions suggests that very little may have changed in government policy.
Of course, Mr Gove would have preferred to stay in post, but his position had become untenable both as a result of his own urgency to drive through reform regardless of obstacles and the needlessly confrontational briefings of his former special adviser, Dominic Cummings.
True to form, Mr Cummings engaged immediately in a public spat with former MP Louise Mensch after she tweeted “This is your fault” to him.
In fact, Mr Gove’s education legacy (including influence over colleges, apprenticeships and universities) may be little changed for at least three reasons.
Firstly there is his new role as Chief Whip, placing him on key cabinet committees, with the ear of the prime minister and very well-positioned to influence the Tory succession in the event of a defeat in the election.
Secondly, the Labour party has been rather coy about exactly which of Mr Gove’s reforms it would roll back.
The third reason is that the new Education Secretary, Loughborough MP Nicky Morgan, is surrounded by Goveite juniors.
Chief among these is Nick Boles, the new Skills Minister (and MP for Grantham and Stamford) who is a member of both the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) ministerial teams.
He goes back a long way with Mr Gove. Whether or not the two flat-shared many years ago as one website claims, their shared work in establishing the right of centre think-tank Policy Exchange is public knowledge.
Back in 2002, Mr Boles was the founding director and Mr Gove the founding chair of what has become this parliament’s dominant thinktank.
A further piece of history to note is that the first government job held by Mr Boles, in 2010, was as the unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Nick Gibb, who, in a reward for conspicuous loyalty to the government in general and Mr Gove in particular, returns to the same department (DfE) from which he was sacked in 2012 but who now finds his bag-carrier is now his equal as minister of state.
Another reason why Ms Morgan may be dissuaded from dismantling anything substantive of her predecessor’s legacy is Lord Nash, the former venture capitalist and Conservative party donor, who continues in the unpaid ministerial post to which he was appointed while remaining an academy chain sponsor and enthusiast for reform.
The boss of all three men, Mrs Morgan has most recently been a junior minister at the Treasury, working under George Osborne.
Before this though, her first role in government was as the PPS to none other than the former Universities Minister David Willetts, who, despite the divisive introduction of £9,000 tuition fees and a budget-busting expansion of private higher education, enjoyed the respect of universities and a very close working relationship with Business Secretary Vince Cable.
A final reason why the education and training direction of the current government remains secure is that, at this point in a parliament, there is actually very little opportunity for Mrs Morgan, let alone Mr Boles to introduce or change much before next year’s election while, over at BIS, Dr Cable remains weakened by the after effects of the Post Office privatisation.
Rather astutely, the reshuffle gives the newcomers a chance to master the detail of their briefs and to connect with the electorate before next May without having to take major pieces of legislation through parliament. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and those of his colleagues who are almost off the media radar like Francis Maude, Oliver Letwin — and now Michael Gove — to start finalising the next Conservative manifesto.
In a further move which confirms that Westminster is indeed a village, former Skills Minister John Hayes is moving from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Transport where he will be met across the despatch box by none other than his former FE shadow, Gordon Marsden.