In 2007 antisemite David Irving and BNP leader Nick Griffin were invited to speak at the Oxford Union.
The new Secretary of State for Education, James Cleverly, told readers of his blog that:
I would not have invited either Griffin or Irving to speak if I were the Chairman of the Union, I’m not, they did. Banning them from speaking, as many protesters demanded, would be a deeply dangerous thing to do. We have laws which cover incitement and if they broke them they should rightly be arrested and prosecuted, but banning them just because you don’t like what they say is a totalitarian act.
It’s a beautiful example of cake-ism. He would not have invited them, though he’s happy to bask in the reflected glory of noisily demanding that others should be able to. Unlike Michelle Donelan he does appear to note that the speech of either man would not necessarily be unlawful, but should anyone say anything unlawful they should be arrested and prosecuted.
Such enviable intellectual suppleness may be of help should the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill return to the Commons at some point.
How did we get here?
On 19 December 1783 Pitt the Younger made George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, the 3rd Earl Temple, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
However it was not a successful appointment – he resigned on 23 December that same year. This four-day period in office has, for nearly 239 years, been the shortest on record. This week, Michelle Donelan lasted 34 hours and 59 seconds as Secretary of State for Education – making her the briefest cabinet appointment in history according to the magnificent Jack Blackman of The Times.
Pitt the Younger was famously a “three bottle man” – though it is not clear how much port Boris Johnson had consumed before he chose James Cleverly to prop up the dying days of his administration as Secretary of State for Education. Johnson is known for favouring friends and former colleagues – he knows Cleverly well as a contemporaneous assembly member from his time as Mayor of London.
Of course, things could so nearly have been very different. James Cleverly withdrew his London mayoral candidacy in August 2006 – the first attempt to run an “open primary” had stalled in the absence of a big name candidate and Cleverly was possibly as big a name then as he is now. The Conservative search for a star memorably saw DJ Mike Read drop out in favour of celebrity MP Boris Johnson – less memorably, Cleverly did the same.
Too much drink, tons of rugby
Cleverly is a Lewisham boy – his later constituency as an assembly member. He studied business at Thames Valley University (now the University of West London) where in his own words he experienced “no money, great friends, too much drink, tons of rugby”.
But the university route was his second choice of career – he started off training as an officer in the army, having gotten the taste for the services at Colfe’s School (an independent day school). Unfortunately for James a leg injury in his second year of training put paid to that, though he has a long and distinguished career in the territorial army and has retained a lifelong interest in the armed forces.
Before becoming an MP he worked in business publishing, contributing articles to magazines on mortgages, computing and small business management while retaining his position in the TA and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
But, in the most 2006 way possible. Cleverly was a blogger. He didn’t (ignoring the fascinating nugget from the top) really say much of note – you’ll find primarily warmed over Conservative talking points and armed forces advocacy. His mentions of education were mainly confined to a yearly jeremiad on how A levels were getting easier. He did support disgraced activist Mark Clarke’s reinvigoration of Conservative Future, but then so did many (including Michelle Donelan) seemingly without political fallout.
2000s Conservative candidate selections were a wild ride
Round about that time he popped up as Conservative candidate for Lewisham East – losing in 2005 with 24 per cent of the vote. He then applied to become a candidate for Battersea – but like luminaries such as Sam Gyimah and Louise Mensch he was not successful on that occasion. Jane Ellison, now Executive Director for External Relations and Governance at the World Health Organisation, won out.
He was luckier in London Assembly elections – winning in Bexley and Bromley in 2007 and later rising to the dizzy heights of the London Waste and Recycling Board, replacing one Boris Johnson as chair in 2010. Perhaps more controversially, he was directly appointed by the Mayor as “youth ambassador” in 2009.
Eventually (pausing only to call for the abolition of the minimum wage) he found his way to the Conservative candidacy in Braintree – replacing noted sex pest Brookes Newmark to win the seat in 2015.
As a junior minister Cleverly has largely focused on his interest in foreign affairs, also finding time to sit on the Commons Foreign Affairs subcommittee during his stints in party roles. Before this week he had never been talked about as a cabinet minister, though he did run against Theresa May in the 2019 leadership elections – lasting a four days in a packed field (still longer than Michelle Donelan did as secretary of state).
James Cleverly clearly has ambition, even if it is not often matched by a clear assessment of his capabilities. Most observers are expecting him to be a caretaker minister in a caretaker administration – there are certainly more obvious candidates for DfE on the backbenches and I’d be surprised if he had much chance to make a mark before October. His first big test is likely to be A level results in August, where he will preside over the first managed decline in attainment since Gove in 2010 and furious articles about a lack of university places.