Who is new universities minister Chris Skidmore?

It could all have been very different for Chris Skidmore.

According to the Bristol Evening Post, he first became interested in politics after a week’s work experience with a Labour MP in 1996. Fourteen years later, he beat that same MP – Roger Berry – with a swing of almost ten per cent.

He claims on his own website to have joined the Conservative Party in 1996 – spending most of his political life campaigning in the constituency he now represents – Kingswood, to the east of Bristol. He grew up there, though he attended Bristol Grammar School rather than his local comprehensive – and went on to undergraduate and postgraduate study at the University of Oxford. While there he served as chair of the History Society – disdaining what he describes in a Christ Church College alumni newsletter as “Oxford Union hackery” (he briefly overlapped with Sam Gyimah’s Oxford career).

As is now widely known, he moonlighted as a guitar player in a genuinely terrible student ensemble called Bob Nylon and the Elastic Band. When a CD of their unique oeuvre surfaced in The Mirror in 2017 – including such classics as “Women are crap” and “Oxford reject” – he was quick to distance himself from such efforts, saying, “I deeply regret now playing on these cringeworthy recordings and I wish I had never done so”. Incidentally, the band’s lead singer Gilbert Ramsey is now a lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews.

Skidmore stayed on at his Oxford college to study for a masters and then a doctorate – deciding to postpone the latter when the offer came to write a biography of King Edward VI. The book did come out – but the break seemed to drive him further into politics.

This political life

Skidmore has worked as an adviser to both David Willetts and Michael Gove, was (like Sam Gyimah) chairman of the Bow Group. He’s been a director of the Conservative Public Policy Group and has worked with Policy Connect.

He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Historical Society, and the Society of Antiquaries.

When he was selected as a parliamentary candidate, he took on a part-time role as a lecturer at the University of Bristol – which allowed him to campaign full time. He’s also written for local Bristol newspaper the Western Daily Press – knowledge he used to ensure local media were kept fully appraised of his movements throughout a long campaign that started as far back as 2008.

During this period he also found time to write a critically acclaimed book on Elizabeth the First. “Death and the Virgin” was adapted as a documentary for Channel 5 the same year that he entered Parliament. He was described by The Telegraph as a “lively talking head”.

As Kingswood MP he has proved popular and made full use of his strong links to the community. A restaurant in nearby Warmley – Bollywood Spice – has named a curry after him. “The chicken curry, served in an aubergine shell, is flavoured with garam masala and bullet chilli, cooked in a tandoori oven, and garnished with a tamarind sauce made with the aubergine’s filling”, reported the Bristol Evening Post.

He’s been keen to share the flavours of the south-west in Westminster too – bringing Bath Ales SPA and Ginger Hare as guest beers to parliamentary bars in October 2010.

In education policy

In his previous role, as party vice chairman (policy), he noted that “policymaking can sometimes be seen as dry or dull: I entirely disagree” – something that will bring joy to the hearts of wonks everywhere this festive season.

He has contributed to local and national education campaigns – for instance reporting to parliament on a Bristol drive to raise the number of apprenticeships. At the Bow Group he wrote an influential report (“Wasted Education”) on the topical matter of “missing” school children, and with fellow MPs Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Kwasi Kwarteng the “manifesto of the Conservative Right” Britannia Unchained. He’s also campaigned with former Bristol North West MP (and Bow Group alumna) Charlotte Leslie on male educational attainment.

So what can we expect to change with a new minister? In all honesty, very little – at least for now. With many of the major policy initiatives already set in motion, the new minister will have to catch up with the balls already up in the air: Augar, ONS, Brexit and the rest. The question the sector wants to know above all is whether he will join his two most recent predecessors in finding the Augar review’s likely direction of fee cuts to be wrong-headed and whether he will oppose it inside government. For now, this Remain-voting MP has his work cut out in helping steward higher education and science through the most turbulent time in British politics in generations.

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