This article is more than 9 years old

DIUS ex Machina? Or whither or wither BIS?

As a government reshuffle is now under way, Andy Westwood looks at the prospect for BIS and the universities and science brief - could they be moved around Whitehall? And what of the likely personalities in the frame to have an influence over the future of the sector in government?
This article is more than 9 years old

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

David Cameron isn’t spending the weekend sorting out coalition or confidence and supply deals or in darkened rooms with Nick Clegg or the DUP. Instead he’s probably at Chequers working out who will fill posts in his new Cabinet and larger ministerial line up.

Of course it’s a line up that can now be made exclusively with Conservative faces and from Conservative principles. We are told that the announcements of the Cabinet at least, will be revealed on Monday, so we will know soon enough.

He’s already filled the top jobs and gone for continuity. George Osborne, campaign leader (it wasn’t just Lynton Crosby) is back as Chancellor and First Secretary of State. He takes the latter job from William Hague but he’ll be relieved that he can concentrate again on economics and spending rather than all the other jobs he has done during the campaign. And weren’t there a lot? Builder, Engineer, Brewer, Chef, Mechanic, Farmer, Plumber, Baker – there are photos of every single one. But for the next few months we might see less of the high viz jacket as he gets his head down and into the details of a new Budget and Spending Review.

Returns too for Theresa May at the Home Office, to resounding cheers from the HE sector no doubt, and for Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon at the Foreign Office and Defence. No sign of a Deputy Prime Minister and I suspect Cameron doesn’t need one or want one for a while at least. Nor does he need a ‘Quad’ or any forum for negotiation, it’s all down to him this time. This is his government now.

So the rest of the line up will be different and so might be the jobs that they get. Conservative ideology and public spending, together with the absence of a need for coalition patronage, points to a smaller state and to fewer ministers as the Institute for Government and others have also pointed this out. Gus O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary has said that a number of departments look very small and vulnerable, especially in the forthcoming Spending Review. DCMS, DECC, DEFRA, and perhaps BIS all look fragile.

They aren’t ‘protected’ of course so commitments elsewhere on education, health, childcare and housing will have an impact, accentuated by a campaign with new promises on the NHS, childcare and the ‘right to buy’. Even DFID, that ‘enjoys’ protected spending does not have huge support. That’s because it, like the others, sit uncomfortably, in a Conservative ideology that favours small government and is suspicious of interventionist, meddling departments. Even more so when previously run by Liberal Democrats. There is little love lost amongst Conservative voters for DEFRA or DECC. They smack of wind farms, of EU agricultural policies, floods, and of suited folk from Whitehall that don’t understand the countryside.

There isn’t much for BIS either. It was run by Vince Cable and Peter Mandelson before that. It’s all a bit interventionist and industrial policy-focused and even though David Willetts enthusiastically embraced it, many Tories still do not really get science, universities or even apprenticeships, even though they’ve been promising an awful lot of them.

Instinctively, many Conservatives prefer the idea of universities being part of an expanded Department for Education. That feels more logical to many than having them anchored to the economy, although Osborne, with ideas of the Northern Powerhouse, thinks differently. Some officials have always supported a return to DFE because they feel that being part of a bigger department might protect them a little from a bloody Spending Review.

A return to a DTI-style BIS also has some appeal. Folding in DCMS and possibly DECC (if it doesn’t go to DEFRA) might make it look a lot like the 1992 version established by John Major and run by Michael Heseltine, amongst others. But it’s worth remembering that while the DFEE at that time (it had employment as well as education) contained universities, it was the DTI that ‘owned’ and funded most science and research.

It’s been considered before of course. Robbins wrote a whole chapter on it in the 1960s and concluded that schools and universities could never command sufficient attention from a single Secretary of State. He found, as everyone who looks in any detail does, that there are more rough edges than neat symmetries to the decision as Jonathan Simons has pointed out on the live blog. Science and the Northern Powerhouse is one. That’s far from just being about education. Apprenticeships too. They are created by businesses and not by educationalists or bureaucrats.

Michael Gove, shortly before he was reshuffled away, admitted to the FT that he would rather like to keep running education, but with universities added to the brief. Universities were obsessed for a while with what he might do if he were. Sam Freedman, his erstwhile adviser at DFE has said that they would have been brought together if the Conservatives had won a majority in 2010. Well, they have one now. And Michael Gove would be very happy to run it. I’m sure he won’t want to stay as Chief Whip and having done it loyally, if rather badly, he may be in a position to ask for it again.

But in the meantime, Cameron on the campaign trail has promised to keep Nicky Morgan in post. Like Gove, she is a loyalist and will want to stay in Cabinet and ideally at education. Even being a Loughborough MP, and a former PPS to David Willetts when Universities and Science Minister, having HE might be too much. There are big jobs to do in both areas. 500 new free schools, 3 million apprenticeships and HE regulation and a student loan book that all need serious attention. As Robbins said, that’s maybe too much for even someone like Gove. It has also been suggested that Morgan become Chief Whip, with her skills better switched from calming teachers to quelling unrest and inspiring loyalty in what is a small majority government with big expectations. That would leave the DFE seat free again: Gove would be back like a shot with or without universities.

When Gordon Brown pawed over it, he created DIUS and BERR in 2007 and then BIS in 2009. There was lots of logic and lots of fuzzy edges. But David Cameron may not look at it in quite as much detail during a weekend where he will have to make many big and quick decisions. I suspect he’ll be drawn more to the personalities and the politics and the exact portfolios will follow. George Osborne and Jeremy Heywood will be on hand to offer advice. Both know they need to get the economy growing faster and more productively. On that basis, both might argue for a revamped BIS with HE and science at its core, even more hard-wired to local growth and the national economy than now. That too would augur well for a Spending Review.

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