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Willetts picks up the chalk

The MP whosehead rolled last year takes over as David Blunkett's shadow. Geraldine Hackett reports

THE APPOINTMENT of David Willetts as the Conservatives' spokesperson for education and employment is likely to sharpen up exchanges in the Commons.

Mr Willetts, the cerebral MP for Havant, Hampshire, replaced Stephen Dorrell in this week's shadow cabinet reshuffle.

As a junior member of the shadow education team, Mr Willetts had begun to revise the Opposition's tactics. He believes the Conservatives need to rebuild their relations with local government and attack the Government's attempts to control from the centre.

The 42-year-old has been one of the party's intellectuals for more than a decade. He began his career as a civil servant in the Treasury, moving to the Downing Street Policy Unit in 1984. As director of studies at the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, Mr Willetts was responsible for producing the philosophical underpinning for the Thatcherite internal market in the health service.

The first serious setback in his career took place last year over his minor role in attempting to minimise the Major Government's embarrassment over Neil Hamilton and the "cash for questions" row. He was forced to resign as a junior whip after being accused of "dissembling" before a Commons select committee.

The main priority as education spokesman, he says, is to hold the Government to account. Mr Willetts identifies the key weakness of Labour's standards agenda as its reliance on ministers micro-managing 25,000 schools. "The Byers' approach is to boss schools and local authorities and the result is endless bureaucracy," he says.

The last government, he suggests, developed a dual system. The sophisticated argument for the Conservatives' promotion of grant-maintained schools was that they forced a kind of quality control on local education authorities.

"The Government's Achilles heel in its attempt to raise standards is that it does not have the mechanism to deliver. The only option is the command and control model," Mr Willetts says.

He believes that the Conservative revival has begun, and points to local government successes in southern England.

The Conservative Opposition will continue to support areas that want to retain grammar schools, but the party is not expected to make a return to selective education one of its key policies.

The two new members of the shadow education team are Damian Green, MP for Ashford and former speech-writer for John Major, and Theresa May, MP for Maidenhead, who has made her mark as a member of the education select committee. In the Lords, the education team is led by the combative Lady Blatch, a former education minister.

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