Damian Hinds, the newly appointed Education Secretary, inspires an admiration among politicians which has yet to be widely shared by journalists. Michael Gove, who “remains” (to use the curious Downing Street term) Environment Secretary, foresees a day when Hinds might contest the Conservative Party leadership against Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.
It would, Gove says, be a contest between two northern, state-school candidates, with Williamson the “tough and gritty” defender of a “pur et dur“ conservatism, while Hinds represents a form of conservatism “in which the Catholic Church has a part to play and authority is tempered with mercy”.
When it was pointed out that Hinds appears, both in his writings and in his appearances on YouTube, to be quite a dull user of words, Gove replied that on the contrary, even at the Oxford Union, Hinds (President in 1991, three years after Gove) was “a dashing and accomplished speaker”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, an exact contemporary of Hinds at Trinity College, Oxford, was beaten by him for the Presidency of the Union, yet says of him: “He’s one of my oldest friends. He’s a very decent, honest man. He doesn’t seek the limelight, but I have thought since 2010 [when they both entered Parliament] he was bound to get into the Cabinet on the basis of ability.”
There is nothing in the as yet rather sparse public record to suggest that Hinds, who is 48, has ever made what the press would call a gaffe. As Rees-Mogg puts it, “He doesn’t make mistakes.”
A journalist who lunched with Hinds confirms this impression: “He was enormously impressive – he didn’t tell me anything at all. He was just very straight and gave nothing away,”
Hinds was educated at St Ambrose College, a Catholic grammar school in Altrincham, to which he referred in a Commons debate in 2014:
“on the key point of whether Catholic schools are some sort of filtering device for middle-class, wealthy and bright kids, the answer is no. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the demographic profile of this country’s Catholic population, the location of those schools and the communities that they serve…
“Typically, a Catholic school may have a catchment area 10 times the size of a typical community school’s catchment area. I saw a bit of that in my own schooling. The school that I went to in south Manchester had kids from leafy north Cheshire, but it also had kids from Stretford, Old Trafford, Stockport and Warrington.
“It really had a very wide intake. Schools must comply with the schools admissions code, and over-subscription policies mean that Catholic schools typically give priority to Catholic children over the wider area and welcome others where there is remaining capacity. That system enables more parents who desire a Catholic education for their children to get one, bearing in mind that it is a minority religion in this country, so the population is likely to be more sparsely spread.”
Hinds has called on the Government to scrap the rule which requires new faith schools to admit at least 50 per cent of their pupils from other faiths. The Catholic Church complains that it is therefore unable to set up new schools, for the rule would force it to violate Canon Law, as over-subscribed Catholic schools would have to turn away children because they were Catholic.
The 2017 Conservative manifesto included a pledge to get rid of this cap, and as the Catholic Herald noted in its report of Hinds’s appointment, “As Education Secretary, he now has free rein to remove the cap at will,” a step which his predecessor, Justine Greening, declined to take.
To do this would raise a howl of protest from self-proclaimed liberals bent on exploiting the remnants of anti-Catholic prejudice. Humanists have already complained that in 2014 Hinds accepted £5,000 from the Catholic Church to employ an intern.
On being appointed, Hinds posted a fitting but somehow tremendously boring tweet:
“Delighted to be appointed Education Secretary – looking forward to working with the great teachers & lecturers in our schools, colleges & universities giving people the opportunities to make the most of their lives”
He has long shown a great interest in the question of how to increase social mobility, and said in a piece published in 2014 in a volume, Access All Areas, edited by David Skelton and with contributions from Robert Halfon, Nadhim Zahawi, Greg Clark, Matthew Hancock and Gavin Barwell among others:
“if we are serious about nurturing outstanding talent, really equalising the odds with the independent sector, we have to think radically. There is no appetite in the country for a wholesale return to academic selection at 11, for good reasons, but why not have at least one unashamedly academically elite state school in each county or major conurbation?”
This attachment to social mobility is accompanied by a commitment to liberty. Hinds voted in favour of gay marriage, which drew upon him the wrath of his local Catholic bishop, and has warned against allowing either politicians or the courts to define “British values”.
After leaving Oxford with a first in PPE, he worked for the best part of two decades in the pub and hotel industries, including a spell as Director of Strategy at Greene King. In 2005, he fought the parliamentary seat of Stretford and Urmston, where he also set up a credit union – another of his enduring interests.
In 2007, he gained selection for the safe Conservative seat of East Hampshire (defeating Pam Chesters, Antonia Cox and Sam Gyimah in the final round), and married Jacqui Morel, a teacher by profession, with whom he has three children.
When Hinds entered the Commons, he served on the Education Select Committee, and the whips were delighted to discover he could be called on to speak on any subject at any moment and at any length, in Gove’s words “steering a fine line between slavishness and individuality”.
In 2014, Hinds was himself recruited as a whip, after the 2015 general election George Osborne took him to the Treasury as Exchequer Secretary, in July 2016 May made him Employment Minister at the Department of Work and Pensions, and now she has put him in the Cabinet.
No one, so far as I can see, has yet managed to write an exciting article about Hinds. He has risen thanks to his good-natured competence, which is in many ways a more valuable quality, and certainly a more reassuring one.
When the EU referendum result was announced, he declared himself “very disappointed”, but went on in his usual lucid, undramatic manner: “The people have spoken and it is now up to everyone in politics and public life to move forward with positivity and purpose.”
On entering his new department yesterday with his junior ministerial colleagues, he said to them: “Come on, let’s go and walk the floors to meet the staff.” Here is a man whose instinct is to do things together with his team.
If a Tory leadership contest happens to occur at a point when Ruth Davidson is not available, it is quite conceivable that the Left of the party, casting around for a standard bearer, will decide this liberal-minded Catholic with a genuine commitment to social mobility fits the bill.