Conservative Intelligence

Conservative Intelligence

This site is currently down for maintenance and should be back soon.

David Willetts

Department: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Position: Minister of State for Universities and Science

Last Updated: Friday, December 10th, 2010

A man who has had a relatively busy week – in advance of the vote on tuition fees – is David Willetts, the minister responsible for Universities at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Willetts is a policy wonk who has long held the nickname “Two Brains” 

on account of his intellect. However, he was one of the Shadow Cabinet forced to drop down to Minister of State level on the formation of the Government in order to make way for Lib Dem entrants to the Cabinet – despite having sat at the top table for twelve of the thirteen years of Opposition.

As such, he has had to play second fiddle to Vince Cable on the issue of tuition fees – perhaps a political blessing in disguise.

Born, raised and educated in Birmingham, Willetts took a First in PPE from Christ Church, Oxford, before going straight into the Treasury, where he worked (as a civil servant) for Nigel Lawson and Nicholas Ridley and then as Principal of the Monetary Policy Division.

In 1984 he was then snapped up by Margaret Thatcher for her Policy Unit, working at Number Ten for a couple of years, but after the 1987 election he left to take up the post of Director of Studies at the Centre-Right think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, whilst concurrently being a consultant director to the Conservative Research Department.

Freed from the shackles of the civil service, he was able to embark on the search for a seat, landing the Tory nomination for the safe constituency of Havant in Hampshire in time for the 1992 election – and he has represented the seat ever since.

Once in Parliament, he was marked out as a future high flyer, swiftly becoming an aide to party Chairman Norman Fowler, then successively serving as a whip, minister for public services and Paymaster General. 

However, he was forced to resign from that final post over his having “dissembled” in evidence to the Standards and Privileges Committee relating to Neil Hamilton.

However, away from ministerial office, he continued to work behind the scenes with Danny Finkelstein on writing the 1997 Conservative manifesto. Few recall that in so doing, he was responsible for coining the phrase “We want to be in Europe but not run by Europe” which was later widely used by William Hague during his time as Tory leader.

In the 1997 leadership contest he backed Peter Lilley and became a middle-ranking employment spokesman on the post-election frontbench and in 1998 was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, where he remained until the 2010 general election in a variety of guises.

He was Shadow Education and Employment Secretary for a year and then held the Social Security/Work and Pensions/Welfare Reform portfolio between 1999 and 2005 under Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard (with a short stop-gap as Head of Policy Co-Ordination between 2003 and 2004).

By the aftermath of the 2005 general election Willetts had been an MP for thirteen years and a frontbencher for most of that time, and there was talk of the by then Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary running for the leadership himself.

However, he was unable to build any momentum behind such a bid, save a handful of publicly-known backers, and opted to back David Davis instead. This came as a surprise to many observers, since he had backed Portillo in 2001 and was deemed to have progressed from being a man of the Right to being a supporter of the modernising tendency.

Indeed, the kind of Conservatism he had been promoting as long ago as

1994 in his pamphlet Civic Conservatism – putting “the free market in the context of institutions and values which make up civil society” – seemed to be the epitome of the Big Society Conservatism embodied by David Cameron.

Nevertheless, Cameron appointed him Shadow Secretary of State for Education then Innovation, Universities and Skills, although he found himself somewhat displaced when Gordon Brown’s merger of that latter department with the Business department left him as part of Ken Clarke’s shadow team for the tail end of the Conservative years in opposition.

The low point of the 2005-2010 Parliament for Willetts was the episode that became known as the “Grammar-gate row” in which he declared that a future Conservative Government would not countenance creating new grammar schools. It resulted in the resignation of shadow minister Graham Brady and much of the pro-grammar school Tory grassroots feeling a sense of distrust towards Willetts.

He is now back in government as minister for universities, but with many ambitious, younger MPs  on their way up the ministerial ladder, it is now perfectly conceivable that he will never get to hold a Cabinet job himself.

He is married to the artist Sarah Butterfield, the daughter of the late Lord Butterfield, and they have two children.

Jonathan Isaby

From the Conservative Intelligence member's site

Miliband’s Threat To Outside Earnings May Drive Tory Mps Over The Edge

Conservative MPs are capable of a wide range of emotions, encompassing the normal human set and then a few extras thrown in. Pride, injured pride, confidence, optimism, crushing depression, panic, fury, resentment, contentment, ambition, resignation, triumph and a host of others are within their repertoire. Even at the best of times, a healthy parliamentary party […]

Cameron Woos Mrs Rochester

“There’s no stunts or backroom deals, just a strong local candidate you can trust.” So wrote David Cameron in a letter sent this week to every voter in Rochester and Strood, where the next UKIP-engineered by-election is to take place towards the end of November.  At the end of it, he made the point again […]

To Respond To Defeat In Clacton, The Tories Will Need A Tougher Immigration Policy

Everyone expected the UKIP candidate, Douglas Carswell, to win in Clacton, but few people thought he would win by the enormous margin of 12,404 votes. An exceptionally rude kick has been administered to David Cameron. It is not much consolation for the Conservatives that a scarcely less rude kick has been administered to Ed Miliband […]

The Tories Leave Birmingham With A New-Found Confidence

No-one knew quite what to expect when the Conservative family gathered in Birmingham on Sunday. Mark Reckless had just delivered the second UKIP defection blow in as many months, and Brooks Newmark’s indiscretions were causing embarrassment (though less existential questions for the party). If anything, observers might have expected a depressed conference mood. Instead, though, […]

21 People To Watch As Next Week’s Conservative Conference Looms

1. Those two MP defectors to UKIP – if, of course, they exist at all.  If so, they will presumably turn up on Saturday evening.  If they don’t, the media will treat this as a further sign that the Party isn’t grown-up, since it talked but didn’t deliver.   2. George Osborne. The Conservative election […]

Will Cameron Go Fast And Slow On Devolution All-Around?

The Prime Minister announced this morning that more devolution for Scotland and reform elsewhere – specifically, action on English votes for English laws – will take place “in tandem” and “at the same pace”.  Draft legislation will be “published by January”. His statement opens up two possible outcomes. The first is that he pushes for […]

Whatever The Result, The Scottish Referendum Has Killed Blair’s Devolution Settlement

The Scottish referendum result is up in the air – polls swing from No to Yes and back again, all within the margin of error. The rush from Westminster to Scotland, not only of the party leaders but of scores of Labour MPs, demonstrates how seriously the prospect of a Yes result is being taken. […]

Two Conservative Scenarios If Scotland Votes Yes

Scenario One: David Cameron does not resign as Prime Minister (or as Conservative leader).  Nor does any member of the Cabinet other than Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary.  The Coalition hangs together.  The Conservative Parliamentary Party rallies round its leader. UKIP’s attempt to provoke an English nationalist backlash comes to nothing.  Perhaps unexpectedly, […]

Cameron’s Ability To Neutralise Opponents Is Brilliantly Illustrated By His Handling Of The New Surveillance Law

David Cameron will always do what the Establishment considers to be prudent.  The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, sprung upon the Cabinet on Thursday morning, is a case in point. Cameron has been told by the security services that these powers are needed. He has therefore set out to square Nick Clegg and Ed […]

Why Critical Headlines About Donor Dinners Raise A Smile In Downing Street

In politics, as with so many things, it’s tempting to judge a book by its cover. The personalities, the catchphrases, the emotional and cultural baggage carried by politicians and parties all compete for our attention. They’re important, of course, but they’re only one part of the political process. The showbiz elements often distract people from […]