David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
Last week saw the fulfilment of a now routine August tradition. After months of nervous anticipation, large numbers of people could finally speculate about the future of the Education Secretary. Some students learnt of their qualification grades, too.
Gavin Williamson’s tenure as Secretary of State for Education will, surely, come to an end at the next reshuffle. He consistently ranks as the least popular member of the Cabinet according to the ratings on this website, he is not well-regarded by Parliamentary colleagues and it is clear that he has been excluded by the Prime Minister from key decisions affecting his brief. He is unpopular with teachers and parents and it is unclear that he has his own agenda in the department, other than a desire to attract headlines about questioning the value of so many people going to university and opposing cancel culture.
Within the media, it is hard to find anyone to say a good word about his performance as Secretary of State. So I will make three points in mitigation.
First, the consequences of the pandemic meant that there were no satisfactory responses to the question of qualifications. Students missed large parts of their education but the extent of this varied considerably. To award fair qualifications, one has to be able to compare across schools and colleges which means one cannot rely solely on teacher assessments. But trying to do that when different schools and colleges had very different experiences creates many injustices, plus problems arise when moderating by past results (as we saw with the 2020 algorithm).
Second, decisions appear to have been taken out of his hands. The decision not to put in place a contingency plan in September 2020 in the event of a serious winter wave of Covid was apparently made in Downing Street. Some responsibility lies there.
Third, Williamson does have some significant political skills. David Cameron found him invaluable as Parliamentary Private Secretary; he skilfully ran Theresa May’s leadership campaign and was an effective Chief Whip in difficult circumstances. As a colleague, I found his understanding of Parliamentary tactics astute. He returned to the role of organising a leadership campaign for Boris Johnson with success.
None of these points, however, should be sufficient to keep him in place.
Yes, he was dealt a bad hand but he has played it badly. There is no evidence that he properly anticipated problems, wrestled with the options, appreciated the pros and cons and worked strategically to mitigate the downsides of the choices he made. Yes, he was ignored and over-ridden by Number 10, but that was indicative of a lack of confidence in him that appears justified. And if, as Secretary of State, you are forced to pursue policies which you consider to be against the national interest, you can always resign.
As for his undoubted political and campaigning skills, these also present a problem. There is a suspicion amongst those that know him and the country at large that, for him, politics is principally a game. It is about scheming and plotting and manipulating and advancing and winning. Williamson is probably not unique in this respect, but he is uniquely obvious about it. This does not help him build trust amongst colleagues or respect from the public.
All of this means that the Prime Minister needs a new Education Secretary. What are the qualities that the Prime Minister should be looking for?
There are many factors that the Prime Minister must take into account when choosing a Cabinet. There is usually a need to reflect the balance of opinion in Parliamentary party, although in 2019 Boris Johnson prioritised clarity and unity on his approach to Brexit (which had electoral advantages later that year, it has to be said). There is also a need for a balance in terms of gender and race. But above all else, Cabinet ministers should be appointed on the basis of their ability to be effective Secretaries of State.
A decent Cabinet needs some good communicators, some bruisers to rough up the opposition, some reformers capable of driving important changes through Whitehall, some competent administrators capable of spotting problems early and diffusing them, some strategic policy thinkers and some plausible future leaders (some Prime Ministers might be nervous about this but you would not to be in a position where there is only one, very obvious successor as Boris Johnson is discovering). Of course, these qualities are not mutually exclusive but it is a rare minister who ticks every box.
In deciding his next Education Secretary, the Prime Minister needs to work out what he wants from the Department. Is he pursuing bold educational reform? This would be a surprise because he has not given any indication as to what it might be. There is certainly a need for some strategic thinking on how technology might aid classroom teaching and teacher training; and there are important questions to be answered about examinations at 16 but big structural reforms are likely to be for a future Parliament. In any event, the Gove reforms are relatively recent.
Is he looking to score political points by taking on ‘woke’ culture? We have seen a bit of this from Williamson and maybe another figure would get better cut-through but, given the challenges our education system faces, this would be an odd priority.
The most important quality for the next Secretary of State, I would have thought, is as a problem-solver/fire fighter. This involves some hard thinking about the long term issues and preparing the ground for future reforms but most importantly addressing short term challenges. How do students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, recover the schooling that has been lost in the last 18 months? What can be done to ensure that examination grades in the next couple of years are fair and robust? How will universities cope with the disruption caused by the surge in A* and A grades? Are we prepared in the event (unlikely, I hope) that a further Covid wave disrupts schooling again?
The reality is that education is a political vulnerability for the Government in the next few years. Someone who can quickly get on top of their brief, who is manifestly doing the job for the right reasons and who ca bring good judgement and grip to the role would be invaluable. They don’t have to be flashy – indeed, they should be content to be relatively anonymous – but low profile competence could neutralise a tricky issue. A Norman Fowler at the DHSS figure, if you like.
There is one further point. If a Secretary of State is going to have credibility, they must also have power. This will not work if months of patient work and relationship building gets thrown over because of an ill thought through intervention from Number 10.
The prioritisation of loyalty and subservience to the Prime Minister served its purpose in 2019 but, to get things done, a government needs Secretaries of State with the confidence and competence to devise and pursue their own agenda; consulting and collaborating with the Prime Minister, but not just following orders; someone who has to be taken seriously by their own officials and the outside world. And, whilst we are at it, the case for Cabinet Ministers being selected on the assumption that they should be capable of doing a substantial and responsible job doesn’t just apply to the next Secretary of State for Education.