'What do we want from FE?'
When David Cameron announced his shadow ministerial team, there was brief confusion in Conservative central office.
Boris Johnson's name had come out of the hat early on, and for a while it seemed as though the Tory blond bombshell was to handle both universities and the further education brief.
It was not to be. In the end, John Hayes was named as shadow minister for vocational education, as the Tories have decided to call their FE spokesman.
Despite his solid Parliamentary career, some in FE could be forgiven for being disappointed at missing out on such a media-friendly spokesman at a time when FE's low profile is a big concern. Will Mr Hayes be able to focus attention on colleges the way Boris might have done? "That's a good question," the 48-year-old says, before pausing for what seems like a whole minute. He looks for inspiration, or strength, in the ceiling of the Pugin room in the House of Commons. Eventually, summoning up the necessary reserves of diplomacy, he says: "I think that it requires the dedicated attention of someone who is going to look at vocational education from age 14 onwards.
"Grouping FE with HE the way the Government does, it will always play second fiddle to HE."
This is Mr Hayes' fifth shadow ministerial post in six years, having made his way through schools, agriculture, local government and transport briefs.
A former grammar school boy, who says he wanted to be a Tory MP from the age of seven or eight, he took a PGCE in history and English at Nottingham university, but never taught, joining the IT industry instead.
He takes up the themes of Sir Andrew Foster's review of the future of FE colleges enthusiastically, particularly the idea that colleges' purpose should be to teach skills for employability.
The Conservatives are considering whether colleges should offer academic courses at all, although Mr Hayes says no decisions have been made.
"What Foster says is that FE does a great deal, and perhaps because it does, it isn't sufficiently clearly focused," he says. "We need to ask searching questions about how far FE should specialise."
Foster also highlighted 17 categories of organisation monitoring FE. Would the party of deregulation want to cut out some of the interference colleges suffer from?
"It's certainly something I'm looking at extremely carefully, particularly in relation to the Learning and Skills Council.
"It has admitted that it needs to be leaner, which is why it's going through a process of rationalisation," Mr Hayes said.
It seems likely that the Conservatives will want to take this further: their policy at the last election was to abolish the LSC, and it cannot count on a reprieve under the new leadership.
Mr Hayes also praised the contributions of the sector skills councils, raising the possibility that they might become involved in funding under Tory plans.
He criticised government policy on 14 to 16-year-olds in colleges, where he says the idea of bussing children many miles to colleges, particularly in rural areas, is flawed.
Instead he moots the possibility of having several centres run jointly by colleges and schools to provide vocational courses for under-16s.
Funding priorities also come in for criticism. Mr Hayes suggests that the focus on young people is wrong and that more money needs to go into adult education if the skills of the workforce are to be improved.
"We mustn't disincentivise employers from skilling and reskilling our hard-to-get-at groups in their 30s and 40s," he said.
But policy announcements are not expected until later this year, with Mr Hayes preferring to wait for the Government to show its hand first, in this week's white paper response to the Foster report.
"I'm not going to burn my boats three years before a general election," he said. For now, it's listening and learning.
Of course, listen to most people in FE and you will hear this: give us more money. But that is not something Mr Hayes was prepared to promise. "The first thing I am looking at is what we are expecting FE to provide. The demands we make on it will to some extent determine how FE is funded.
"There are issues about funding and there are issues about salaries. But you can't have a discussion about this outside the context of what you believe the purpose of FE is."
Doesn't a vision of FE dominated by vocational education, with less funding than A-level courses in schools, smack of secondary moderns for 16 to 19-year-olds?
"Certainly skills education shouldn't be education on the cheap. We certainly need adequate funds to ensure we can deliver excellence," he said.
Reconciling that with the Conservatives' desire for a low-tax, competitive economy will be his balancing act.