Tories' Two Brains takes on Blunkett;Briefing;People;Interview;David Willetts

26th June 1998 at 01:00
David Willetts has taken over the mantle of shadow education secretary. Frances Rafferty talks to the man behind the reputation.

With Stephen Dorrell stepping down to spend more time with his ego, the Government education front bench can expect a more robust rebuttal of their policies from David Willetts and his new team.

Mr Willetts, appointed shadow education and employment secretary in William Hague's reshuffle, is poised to challenge Labour with all the intellectual rigour on which his reputation rests. A friend and colleague said: "David is not inclined to rely on rhetoric or bullying in debate. He does not get carried away into hyperbole; he uses well-constructed arguments. He engages his mind, not his heart.

"He isn't a die-hard romantic, he is a practical politician. He does have a set of basic beliefs, but will adjust tactically to get to where he wants to be."

Now 42, the ambitious Mr Willetts started his path to the top at King Edward's School, Birmingham, then a direct grant school, and went on to Christ Church, Oxford, where he gained a first in PPE. Oliver Letwin MP, at Cambridge at the same time, recalls Willetts appearing more like a don than an undergraduate.

His route to politics was via first the Treasury, as a civil servant who became private secretary to Nigel Lawson, and then the Downing Street Policy Unit, which he left in 1986, becoming director of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies in 1987. He became MP for Havant in 1992, and was a parliamentary private secretary to Sir Norman Fowler, before joining the Whip's office.

His easy manner when you meet him, sporting bicycle clips, comes as a surprise, given his reputation as one-time policy-wonk. During the committee stage of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, he even managed to raise smiles from the victims of his waspish sense of humour.

And it appears his two children are on hand to prick any pomposity. Recently one political editor was told that Daddy could not come to the phone because he was being turned into a sausage roll. At this point Daddy was lying under a mattress in the garden and was being jumped upon by his seven-year-old daughter.

While the number of press releases put out by his former boss Stephen Dorrell can be counted on the fingers of one hand, Mr Willetts, who was his deputy as employment spokesman, has been beavering away challenging the Government's Welfare to Work programme and the New Deal. His critique of Welfare to Work, published by the Social Market Foundation, says the programme is an expensive and inefficient way to help unemployed people get work, and is targeted at the wrong group.

On the day of the TES interview, Mr Willetts said he and his team, Theresa May and Damian Green, had put out reactions on four separate issues.

While he will be charged with formulating the Conservatives' education policy, he said he would not be producing a 19-point plan in the near future. "Our first job is to listen. During the 1997 election our manifesto, which I played a large part in writing, was overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate."

But in Is Conservatism Dead?, a published debate between Mr Willetts and John Gray, professor of politics at Oxford University, the shadow education secretary sets out the argument for limited government and the free market as motors for social policy.

Mr Willetts says Labour's agenda of pursuing equality and fairness has led to a highly centralised system where "planners are supreme and the individual institutions have to be flattened into uniformity and submission".

He said: "You cannot raise standards by imperial edict. The present command and control model, where the Department for Education and Employment is trying to run every school in the land, is bad for schools and very stupid.

"Blunkett, with his background as a municipal socialist, is now acting like the chief executive of Sainsbury's, totally failing to understand the character of the British education system.

"With the framework of the national curriculum, plus information about school performance, parental choice is a better way of driving up standards. Institutions should be given the power to control their own affairs."

He believes the Government's rigidity on class size - banning classes of more than 30 for infants - is a great mistake and will create problems. And he believes Mr Blunkett's rejection of Sir Ron Dearing's report on higher education has been the basis of a whole catalogue of Government disasters on tuition fees and higher education. "Dearing was the only game in town," he says.

His appointment represents a full rehabilitation following his fall from grace two years ago when he resigned after being accused of dissembling by the Standards and Privileges Committee during the inquiry into the Neil Hamilton "cash for questions" affair. (The incident led to the famous Sun headline, Two Brains and No Job.) He admits to the political mistake of indulging in "fancy word play" with the committee, but not to any dishonesty, adding that he did the decent thing by walking. A little humbling may well have done him good, he says.

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