Boris the bold steps out of the limelight into the shadow

December 16, 2005

The university sector is braced for controversy after the appointment of Boris Johnson, probably the Conservative Party's most popular and irrepressible politician, to the post of Shadow Higher Education Minister.

Mr Johnson - who said at an awards ceremony that the ever busy Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, must be "identical twins" and who described Tony Blair as "a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet" - will be expected to shake up the political debate on higher education at a time when schools policy is dominating the agenda.

Jonathan Whitehead, parliamentary affairs officer for the Association of University Teachers, said: "What a refreshing appointment. Higher education has lacked a high profile and effective opposition, and we certainly expect Boris Johnson to provide that."

The MP for Henley resigned as editor of The Spectator magazine when the appointment was announced last week. He said he had been given a "fantastic" post by David Cameron, the Tory leader, who is a friend and fellow Oxford University graduate. But he admitted that it would be "a hard job to do properly".

He takes over at an interesting time. Mr Cameron has publicly abandoned the Tories' opposition to top-up fees. This should suit Mr Johnson, who is rumoured to have privately disagreed with the party's original line.

But all eyes will be on the eccentric old Etonian, who has been given a second chance after a brace of political blunders saw his famous blond mop plastered over all the front pages a year ago.

The married father of four was dropped as the party's Arts Spokesperson after being accused of misleading Michael Howard, who was then the Tory leader, about an alleged affair.

Mr Johnson was at the time already on probation after being sent to Liverpool by Mr Howard to apologise for an editorial in The Spectator that denounced the city for being "hooked on grief" after the murder of Ken Bigley by his kidnappers in Iraq.

Mr Cameron also announced last week that David Willetts, MP for Havant and former Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, would take over as Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

This is Mr Willett's second time in the post - he was named Education and Employment spokesperson by William Hague in 1998.

Mr Willetts, who is also an Oxford graduate and is known as "two brains" because of his fierce intellect, was a surprise choice because he backed Mr Cameron's opponent, David Davis, in the leadership contest.

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