David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is being tipped to survive another possible ministerial reshuffle this month, although if he were moved, the resulting vacancy would be greeted by a queue of candidates from the Right of the Conservative Party.
Media reports have suggested that there could be a junior ministerial reshuffle later this month. But with Prime Minister David Cameron’s popularity among the Tory faithful on the rise in recent weeks, there may be less pressure on him to seek favour within the ranks by promoting backbenchers or junior ministers.
Speaking privately, one vice-chancellor told Times Higher Education that he thought Mr Willetts is likely to remain in place at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with odds of 70:30 or 80:20 in his favour.
The source added that it would be a “tragedy” if Mr Willetts went.
The minister is widely admired for his knowledge of the sector. But with no legislative programme in progress, his post may be seen as one that could be offered without consequence to an ambitious up-and-coming Tory.
Contenders from the Class of 2010
While Mr Willetts is on the Conservatives’ modernising wing – serving as president of the Bright Blue group, which campaigns for the party to adopt “liberal and progressive policies” – any potential successor is more likely to hail from the Right.
Among the contenders would be Elizabeth Truss, MP for South West Norfolk and a junior minister in the Department for Education, who has been identified as one of the Tory MPs newly elected in 2010 who are most likely to be promoted in a reshuffle.
Ms Truss – whose plans to increase child-to-staff ratios in nurseries were scuppered by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister – is a member of the right-wing Free Enterprise Group, formed among the 2010 intake of Tory MPs.
Other potential replacements for Mr Willetts in the universities brief might include John Glen, MP for Salisbury, who published a paper on universities for the Free Enterprise Group in January 2013.
Mr Glen had no involvement with higher education policy prior to writing Completing the Reform: Freeing the Universities.
As a former head of the Conservative Research Department, he is likely to be a frontrunner for promotion.
Meanwhile, another member of the Free Enterprise Group, Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, is an ambitious Tory backbencher who can point to some experience of higher education: he has been a member of the BIS select committee and supported the sector’s arguments against the Home Office’s visa policy.
However, a factor heavily in favour of Mr Willetts retaining his position is support from Vince Cable, the business secretary, who carries weight in the coalition as the second most senior Liberal Democrat. The two get on well together and are reported to share a car home after late votes at the House of Commons.
A change in Mr Cable’s role would be a major event. Given the delicate balance of relations in the coalition, shifting such a senior Lib Dem figure is likely to be seen as politically unsettling.