What’s David Cameron’s greatest political fear? Being required to press the red button? Spotting Boris Johnson lurking behind Number 10’s bike sheds? Ed Miliband?
The answer, apparently, is none of the above. What strikes fear into the prime minister’s heart more than anything else is “hearing that David Willetts is about to make a wide-ranging speech”.
It’s a joke that stems from the now infamous speech made by Willetts when he was shadow education minister, in which he suggested that grammar schools were not the engines of social mobility that many in the Conservative Party liked to believe.
In the fallout from that particular foray off message he was “demoted” to the higher education brief, adding science when the coalition came to power in 2010.
He managed to protect both student numbers and the unit of resource, something that previous Conservative governments had failed to do
But Cameron’s joke also speaks volumes about Willetts’ style of politics: his tendency (and ability) to range widely, to engage with any debate that interests him, and – perhaps – his inability or unwillingness to play the political game to maximum advantage.
Willetts, who quit as universities minister this week and who plans to leave Parliament next year, is known to have coveted higher office, and it is likely he would have been shadow chancellor had David Davis – the horse he backed – won the Tory leadership in 2005.
Yet in universities and science he found a brief that matched his talents, and one that needed a serious thinker as the government demanded wholesale reform.
The scale of that reform and the implications for students, academics, universities and society have been enormous, and while Willetts has been admired for his personal qualities, many regard his policies as dysfunctional and toxic.
To his critics he will be remembered as the architect of a consumerist, utilitarian approach to higher education ushered in by the trebling of tuition fees and promotion of private providers. His exclusion from Cameron’s inner circle may also be partly to blame for the failure of his department to effectively combat the Home Office’s assault on overseas students.
But others would argue that he managed to protect both student numbers and the unit of resource, something that previous Conservative governments had failed to do.
Ken Clarke, another long-serving minister who left government this week, has said that the secret to ministerial success is “having a clear idea of what you want to deliver, and sticking to it”. Willetts did this, and might argue that the ends justified the means.
We will see how history judges him on that score, and may not need to wait long if the system he has set up, with its soaring costs, is dismantled after the next general election.
What is undeniable is that Willetts has been a minister committed to a collegial approach, to university autonomy and to protecting funding for both universities and research.
In fact, he is accused by some of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, having spent too much time with vice-chancellors (after resigning, he is said to have bounded down the corridor saying: “I’m free!” – although he may have been referring to the strictures of ministerial life rather than the clutches of v-cs).
Universities will hope for a similar relationship with his successor, Greg Clark: close, but not at the expense of autonomy.