The new BIS team – agents of HMT?

Sajid Javid WonkheThe Rt Hon Sajid Javid is the new Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills (and President of the Board of Trade). Javid comes from a working-class family and after a career in international banking, decided to join politics in 2009. He’s been close to George Osborne and David Cameron ever since, with a rapid rise through the ranks – from positions in the Treasury, to Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the last parliament. A key ally of Osborne in particular, he’s already talked about a possible future leader of the Conservatives. The City and business are so far pleased with the appointment – Vince Cable never endeared himself to the bankers. The HE sector is for now pleased that they have a Secretary of State on ‘their side’ of the argument i.e. that of George Osborne’s, which sees universities and science as key to growth. However Javid has made eurosceptic noises in the past which might be a cause for concern – but he is likely to come under intense pressure from business, skills, science, HE and everyone else he represents, to join the campaign to stay in the EU when the referendum kicks off. As I write about earlier on in this live blog, he once had a real battle with the National Union of Students – and lost – but that was a long time ago and we don’t know what he thinks about such things today.

jo-johnson wonkheJo Johnson is the new Minister of State for Universities & Science. It had been indicated that he would attend Cabinet, but it now appears that unlike his predecessors, he will not be having a seat around the table, at least for the time being. This reduces HE and science’s Cabinet representation a bit, as in the last Parliament both the HE Minister and Secretary of State spoke for the sector at Cabinet meetings. Johnson is the younger brother to the famous Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who held the HE brief when the Conservatives were in opposition around 2005. Jo Johnson has a very different style to his brother, he’s one of the top policy wonks in the government, and before this job, was heading up the No.10 Policy Unit. He’s a Europhile, and has openly called for students to be removed from the net migration target. Like his boss at BIS, Johnson is is thought to be on the same side of the argument as the sector on these matters, like David Willetts before him. Fearing a hardliner appointment in a majority administration, the sector is breathing a sigh of relief as although he may not yet know much about science or HE, he’s exceptionally clever and will not have any trouble with getting to grips with the issues. Vice chancellors are not only pleased that he appears to agree with them on Europe and immigration, but are delighted to have a minister so close to Cameron and Osborne as they can be sure not to be forgotten about.

Analysis

Ultimately both Johnson and Javid are agents of HM Treasury and George Osborne. This is both a good and a bad thing from the sector’s perspective. On the one hand, they are part of what should be prevailing orthodoxy in this government, that the future is at least partly built on human capital and that universities and science are central to securing growth. This is tempered by elements represented by Theresa May, who comes from somewhere else entirely – this was a battle in the last parliament and it’s likely to continue in this one. For the sector, it’s important to have strong characters on the right side of this argument and close to HMT and No.10. But on the other hand, a brutal period of cuts is coming and the spending review will see blood on the streets of Whitehall. And despite Osborne’s commitments, the choices will be so tough that the relatively wealthy universities and science sectors start to look vulnerable, despite good intentions and the right political impulses. So what remains to be seen is whether Sajid Javid and Jo Johnson will be in BIS to carry out their master’s will when the time comes, or will they dig a trench with HE and science and do their bit to resist the axe?

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