I remember well, when just a few days after the election in 2017, I was called to the Commons Office of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. I was told by her and Gavin Barwell that I had reached the end of the road in my role as Skills Minister.
She said I should go back to campaigning on the backbenches, where I guess she felt my abilities best lay. By the time I had got back to my own Commons Office, the Department for Education Civil Servants had returned my belongings, taken back the DfE laptop and changed the nameplates on the office door to make way for the new incumbent.
When you are called to the Commons Office of the Prime Minister you know it is over. Just like the condemned man walking to the guillotine waiting for his head to be defenestrated. Instead of the crowds baying for blood watching Robespierre’s latest victim, you have the reporters in the Commons corridors and on social media salivating at the latest beheading.
During last week’s reshuffle, journalists were waiting around a set of lifts located near the Prime Minister’s Commons Office. As I was pressing the button for the elevator, one reporter asked me courteously if I would mind standing at the back of the Speaker’s Chair (also located by the Prime Minister’s Commons rooms) and text over the names of any Ministers who were walking through to see him. I, also politely, declined. I explained saying I had better things I could do with my life!
Initially, getting the heave-ho is a pretty bruising experience. You feel sore and ask yourself: why? You have to explain to all of your family, friends and constituents that you are not really useless, and that it is simply the nature of politics. In truth, I was initially incredibly dispirited. I loved the job and I had wanted to be Skills Minister for a long time before my appointment. I had worked especially hard to bring the FE and Technical Education Bill successfully through Parliament in the nine months in the run-up to the election.
But, after a few days, I just dusted myself down and I thought, well, I’ve had a good innings. I had previously attended Cabinet, been Party Deputy Chairman, been made a Privy Councillor and I had just been re-elected MP for the best town in England. Que sera, sera.
I made the decision to stand for election to chair the House of the Commons Education Select Committee, so I could continue to work on education and skills – my passion in politics. Being elected in 2017, against five other candidates and having to canvas votes across all parties, was a special moment in my political life.
As a Committee Chair, you can campaign for the things you believe in, speak to the media more freely and still get things done, albeit in a poacher rather than a gamekeeper kind of way. You are also freed from the tyranny of the phone call from the Number 10 switchboard, which says the Prime Minister would like to see you in his Commons Office…
The ex-Ministers Roll of Honour
I recount all this because I have huge sympathy for those who got the chop last week. Nick Gibb for example, who, whatever my disagreements with him about technical and vocational education (sometimes played out and debated on the pages of Conservative Home), is a man of authenticity and conviction.
He did much to improve standards across our schools, especially literacy. Gavin Williamson, who pushed FE, skills and apprenticeships higher up the political agenda, culminating in the Skills Bill, currently before Parliament.
Robert Jenrick, who understood that our country desperately needed more houses and tried to face off the Nimbys.
Robert Buckland, who did much to strengthen the justice system and toughen legislation for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, politics is a blood sport, but these few examples show, whatever had gone wrong in these Departments, much good was done as well.
Mangoes in the Antarctic, Brussels Sprouts in the Desert.
As far as education goes, the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as Education Secretary is good news. When asked, I once said to Andrew Gimson (of this Parish) that Zahawi is such a brilliant organiser, that he could find mangoes in the Antarctic and Brussels sprouts in the desert. His previous and extraordinary work as Vaccines Minister is a testament to that.
I am sure Nadhim will shake a few trees (much needed) in the DfE and bring both passion and policy to his new brief – especially when it comes to Apprenticeships and Vocational Education. He was previously not just Children’s Minister, but Apprenticeships Ambassador for the Government and did much to improve Apprenticeship take up from big business. All power to his elbow.