Willetts hopes to befriend foes

June 5, 1998

The new Conservative frontbench education and employment team appointed by William Hague in this week's reshuffle will go straight into parliamentary action next Monday and Tuesday as the Teaching and Higher Education Bill completes its progress through the House of Commons.

David Willetts, who has stepped up from speaking on further and higher education and employment to succeed Stephen Dorrell as shadow education and employment secretary, will lead two subordinates appointed to their first frontbench posts little more than a year after becoming MPs.

Damian Green, who worked in the prime minister's policy unit under John Major, is a comparative rarity in the 1997 intake, a Europhile who backed Kenneth Clarke in last year's leadership election. He takes over Mr Willetts's previous role on employment and higher education.

"These are two big, important policy areas, with lots of ideas to be developed and difficult choices to be made," he said. He has not been directly involved in education policy before: "There's an extremely steep learning curve there."

Theresa May, a member of the education and employment select committee who signed a Conservative candidates' anti-Euro declaration before the general election and voted for William Hague on the later ballots of the leadership election, will cover schools.

Mr Willetts said he had two main priorities: "We have to be open-minded and listen to people in the education world. I am sure the last thing anyone needs from me at the moment is a 21-point plan. At the same time we have to be an efficient, beady-eyed opposition making sure that the government is held to account over its policies and promises."

Mr Willetts has been involved in planning the Conservatives' "Listening to Britain" consultation process, which starts next month. Since the last election he has readily acknowledged the extent to which the 1979-97 Conservative governments alienated education professionals, but he says he has found academics willing to discuss issues with him. "One reason is the way in which the government has handled the Dearing report. Everyone hoped that Dearing would provide a stable, clear framework for higher education, but the government's behaviour suggests that all we are going to get is another stopgap and people are already starting to think beyond it."

He said it would also be important, once the Teaching and Higher Education Bill has passed into law, to continue pressing the government on the implementation and consequences of tuition fees.

Mr Willetts also hopes to continue working and writing on wider political issues. "I'm studying our defeats in 1906 and 1945 and am enjoying the rather lively literature on both elections."

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