David Willetts has been without a special adviser for more than a month after a wrangle with No 10 that could deprive him of such a post permanently.
Ryan Shorthouse, director of the Conservative modernising group Bright Blue, of which Mr Willetts is president, is thought to have been chosen for the job by the universities and science minister.
But the prime minister’s office, which must sign off the appointment of special advisers, has yet to give the go-ahead, despite Nick Hillman, Mr Willetts’ former adviser, leaving his post in early December. The future of the position will be of interest to many in higher education, given that Mr Hillman, now director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, took a major role in liaising with the sector and working on policy.
The number of special advisers in government is often the subject of media criticism and No 10 keeps numbers under control. It is thought that, rather than allowing Mr Willetts an appointment, the prime minister’s office may want to use the vacancy elsewhere, as it believes other areas of government are bigger priorities than higher education in the lead-up to the 2015 general election.
No 10 may even want to appoint its own special adviser across the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, some suggest. There is unhappiness among Tories with Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, and such an appointment would be seen as a counterbalance.
Mr Shorthouse, who was a researcher for Mr Willetts when he was shadow education secretary, recently gave an interview to The Guardian in his Bright Blue role.
In a front-page story on 28 December, the newspaper reported that Mr Shorthouse had accused David Cameron of “pandering to prejudice, uncertainty and anger” and championing a “negative and uninspiring” form of politics in response to the threat posed by the UK Independence Party. It is unclear if Mr Shorthouse’s comments were partly evidence of frustration at the failure of No 10 to sign off his appointment or whether the timing was coincidental.
The delay in the appointment meant that Mr Hillman was unable to hand over to a successor.