Who is Gillian Keegan?

It's a big promotion for new Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan. David Kernohan traces her journey.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

New Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (born Gillian Gibson) entered her first work place, an automotive parts factory, straight from school, aged 16.

With ten O levels from St Augustine of Canterbury Secondary School (in Huyton on Merseyside), she was the only female in that year’s intake and the only one to complete the employer-backed degree at Liverpool John Moores University.

At a young age she took against Derek Hatton’s militant council, and trade union politics of the day – claiming to have “always voted for the conservatives” because they seemed more likely to bring in business investment. She cites (to the Brighton Argus) her political heroes as Benjamin Disraeli (citing “upon the education of the people the fate of this country depends” alongside Margaret Thatcher.

Jet set

She progressed quickly to senior roles, working her way through a range of blue-chip companies (and at one point making more than 200 flights a year): General Motors, NatWest, MasterCard subsidiary Mondex (the latter as Head of Strategic Alliances and then Commercial Director), the Amadeus Group (a travel agency software developer) in Spain and then – after a break – in 2011 to travel agency software developer Travelport as Chief Marketing Officer.

Her break was the London Business School Sloan Fellowship leadership and strategy programme. Talent-spotted by former MPs Anne Milton (herself an LBS alumnus) and Justine Greening (whom she met at an LBS reunion) she had a stint as a local councillor in West Sussex (member for commercial services) and an unsuccessfully pitch at the St Helen’s South and Whiston constituency in 2015 (she got 15.9 per cent of votes, so you can see why the Conservative’s described it as a “non-target seat”). Afterwards she became a director of Theresa May’s Women2Win organisation, and made some venture capital investments (the IPO payout from Amadeus went a long way).

She won 60.1 percent in Andrew Tyrie’s old seat in Chichester in 2017, becoming the West Sussex constituency‘s first female MP. The Mail described her as one of May’s Maidens. And her maiden speech payed tribute to her late father-in-law, former Nottingham South MP Denis Keegan.

Parliamentary apprenticeship

In a contrast to her commercial career, her parliamentary experience saw her spend a long time at the lowest government rung as a serial Parliamentary Private Secretary, in the Treasury (2018), Defence (2019), the Home Office (2019) and the Department of Health (2020) – ending as a Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills at DfE in 2020. This last one wasn’t a huge surprise, she’d already acted in an unofficial capacity as an “MP apprenticeships ambassador” with Anne Milton.

During her period at DfE she announced measures to make apprenticeships more flexible for businesses to offer and students to study. She oversaw facilities and placement investments for T levels, supported staff development for FE teachers. Though only in post for a little over a year (an occupational hazard for ministers at the moment) she displayed a clear interest in an aptitude for vocational education policymaking.

September 2021 saw a move to a Minister of State role for care and mental health. She has surprisingly little direct ministerial experience for a newly appointed secretary of state.

Connections

Liverpool supporter, godmother to John Bercow’s children (her husband Michael contributed to his campaign funds), brexiteer, honorary member of Chichester Yacht Club, former apprentice, jetsetting businesswoman, digital skills advocate, wheelchair basketball player (she brutally beat down Nadhim Zahawi in a charity game in 2017) and a doughty campaigner on the all important A27 congestion issue – she’s a difficult woman to pigeonhole.

A Sunak backer both times round, She is regularly tipped as a parliamentarian to watch – will her first big cabinet job prove commentators right?

Leave a Reply