This article is more than 1 year old

Who is Kit Malthouse?

David Kernohan profiles the latest Secretary of State for Education, Christopher (Kit) Malthouse
This article is more than 1 year old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Let us cut to the chase – the only reason you’ve heard of Christopher (Kit) Malthouse is the Malthouse Compromise.

That particular gem from what until recently we thought were the darkest days in our great island story – as an aid memoire it was the plan to get the the EU to approve Northern Ireland border controls based on technology that did not actually exist – was actually penned by Steve Baker.

It bears the Malthouse name because of his ability to bring together the warring factions in the Conservative party via the medium of, basically, storytelling. One day technology will solve all of our problems – so why not regulate as if it already has. I’m sure he’ll love those OfS dashboards.

Gotta catch ‘em all

The recent Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s career to date has been long and varied. A Liverpool boy, he studied economics and politics at Newcastle University (where he was apparently something of a theatre kid, appearing in productions at Newcastle Playhouse) before training to become a chartered accountant.

Following an abortive run at Liverpool Wavertree in 1997 (he came third, but was featured in The Times’ list of preferred Eurosceptic candidates) he joined Westminster council the year after as a member for part of Pimlico. While there he began a career-spanning obsession with those sex workers’ cards you see in London phoneboxes. He claimed in The Times (8 July 2000) that “children are swapping them and forming collections” in a disturbing variation of the Pokemon craze. Such arguments resulted in the sections 46 and 47 of Criminal Justice and Police Act of 2001 – Malthouse gleefully popped up to comment the first few times someone was arrested under this legislation, and the first one to be fined was a student.

Other Westminster Council priorities under Malthouse included a doomed campaign against the congestion charge – arguing that it would be expensive and affect the city’s competitiveness. He also wrote to the Guardian protesting the availability of “handouts” for homeless people. His most admirable campaign concerned the accuracy of the 2001 Census – Malthouse complained that the population of Westminster was underrepresented by an astonishing 25 per cent – “a statistical travesty”. He was (partially) right to do so – a subsequent reexamination of available data found an extra 17,500 people (around 10 per cent).

Come fly with me

As a local politician, Malthouse was characteristically blunt about the failings of the party nationally – including this gem of a quote from The Times (October 2005):

MPs see us as their inferiors…(but) while the national party has cocked it up for a decade or more, Conservatives in local government have been winning elections. Party policy has been behind the curve on (local government) for years.

Naturally throughout this period he was seeking a parliamentary nomination – for example he was in competition with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Elizabeth Truss for the Kensington and Chelsea nod in 2004, though they were all pipped to the post by Malcolm Rifkind.

Mind you, at the time Kit Malthouse was busy trying to get a doomed budget airline off the ground. “Hop”, established with the former chief executive of “Buzz” – the magnificently named Tony Camacho – failed to raise the £5m it needed to fly people on “unfashionable” routes for £10. The airline never ran any flights, or indeed leased any aircraft – it all feels a little bit Chris Grayling.

After a few lean years out of the limelight – leaving the council, working on more conventional business ideas, and dealing with a very messy divorce – he was named as a London Assembly Candidate in 2007. An Evening Standard profile described him as a “heavyweight (literally) political bruiser” lately added to David Cameron’s A-list of potential parliamentary candidates. The Independent followed this up with the disquieting news that he was instrumental in the resignation of Shireen Ritchie (yes, Madonna’s former mother-in-law) from her role “breathing” life into the selection of candidates.

Some assembly required

Newly married to Canadian wannabe MySpace-for-classical-music mogul Juliana Farha (whom he met on a course at the University of London) 2008 saw Malthouse’s election to the London Assembly. He immediately became Chair (later Deputy Chair) of the Metropolitan Police Authority as Deputy Mayor for Policing, under Boris Johnson. The appointment was at least technically illegal – you can’t be a member of a legislation and a part of its executive at the same time – but as is usually the case with Boris a path was cleared.

Kit Malthouse took to the role with relish – associated with a number of splashy initiatives around crime maps, stop and search, youth crime, and a plot to remove the Met Commissioner Ian Blair. The latter blew up in The Times, with Malthouse initially claiming he was talking about a “hypothetical situation” before the ousting actually took place later that year. Very much seen as Johnson’s bagman, Malthouse also became involved in the ill-fated “Boris Airport” plan on the Thames Estuary as a replacement for Heathrow – but had enough personal clout to be talked up as a possible future mayor in his own right.

But old habits die hard for the “iron fist” in Boris Johnson’s “velvet glove”. On 17 July 2009 he wrote for the Evening Standard on a day out with police dealing with “the dogs that menace London” (sample quote: “As we approached the first door on a silent, sunny street, the dogs sensed our presence and started barking. My stomach clenched”). And the Deputy Mayor also became concerned about a rise in sex worker phone box adverts ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

Westminster once more

After a brief stint as Deputy Mayor for business and enterprise, in 2014 Kit Malthouse stood down in London after being selected as candidate for the safe Conservative seat of North West Hampshire – winning it in 2015 following the retirement of George Young. Boris offered a valedictory address:

Kit Malthouse has been a vital part of my team since day one and the force of his personality, combined with his desire to lead from the front, has been key

Malthouse became chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Life Sciences – arguing in national campaigns for additional funds for the sector. “What minister wouldn’t recognise the industry as an obvious jewel in the crown?” he asked in the Telegraph in 2016.

A period as patron of the MS Society came to an end as the new-ish MP voted to cut the benefits of the long term sick in 2016. He also campaigned noisily for Brexit, and eventually brokering the discussions that led to the compromise that bears his name. Such loyalty leads to rewards – Kit Malthouse proceeded to decorate a series of junior ministerial roles in the May and Johnson administrations.

As Minister for Family Support (2018) he engineered the cold weather payments distributed during the “beast from the east”. As Minister for Housing and Planning (2018-19) he was involved in measures to address unsafe cladding and fire prevention measures in high-rise buildings following the tragedy at Grenfell. February saw Malthouse leap from his ministerial car to help an injured women – a noble act that resulted in a dynamite quote from a “tory insider” in the Sun:

Not content with attempting to save all our jobs, Kit is now saving people’s lives.

All noble stuff, but it is not clear why he felt that this qualified him to put his name in the hat as a potential leadership candidate on 27 May 2019 – he dropped out 6 days (approximately three Michelle Donelans) later.

Big beast

Johnson rewarded his former deputy with a Ministerial role responsible for policing alongside an eyecatching pledge to recruit 20,000 new police officers (it ended up being 3,000). As was often the case in that government delivery was more mundane – a row erupted when he decided to use fried chicken boxes as a means to convey anti-knifecrime messages. He hoped that “prosecutions will follow” after Bristol residents dumped a statue of Edward Colston in the river in 2020.

As his political influence increased, Malthouse became a privy councillor in 2021 and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the summer of 2022 – taking on roles around public sector efficiency, cybersecurity, Covid 19, and science and technology innovation.

His new role as Secretary of State for Education is a small promotion, but sits outside his usual areas of expertise – he would make a lot more sense in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s role at BEIS given his background in business and passion for the life sciences. Indeed, he has only mentioned universities seven times in parliament – in the context of life sciences research, international relations, and estates maintenance.

That means he’s somewhat of a blank slate on education issues. And given some of the alternatives floated, the wider education will be quietly breathing a sigh of relief, although all eyes are on who will now take up the HE brief under Malthouse.

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