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Who is new universities minister Michelle Donelan?

David Kernohan has been through the archives for information on the new higher education minister, Michelle Donelan
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

She’s clearly a prime ministerial favourite now – but Boris Johnson had a fiery encounter with new universities minister Michelle Donelan in 2014.

It was like being savaged by a bunny rabbit. It was this innocent looking thing, who would have thought it would pack such a punch.”

It was a memorable visit to the Wiltshire Chilli Farm in Melksham for both, though Donelan was no stranger to the heat as one of three winners of their 2013 chilli eating competition. Boris tasted a Chocolate Habanero (up to 577,000 Scoville Heat Units) prompting the comment above.

Boris, David Cameron, and George Osborne graced the MP for Chippenham’s successful election campaign in 2015 – a race that saw huge resources poured into the constituency. As well as visits from the three best known Conservatives of the time, Chippenham received more than £50,000 in donations and the enthusiastic support of Conservative Future.

Now disbanded and mired in controversy, Conservative Future was a powerful campaigning force – on campus and nationally – five years ago. Donelan was very active on the executive since as far back as her first parliamentary campaign in 2010 (she failed to win in Wentworth and Dearne), and she ran for president of the organisation later that year.

After failing to land the presidency, she became the organisation’s press and media development officer. A profile in the Sydney Morning Herald described her as having “set up several Conservative Future branches”.

From the mouth of babes

Donelan was raised in Whitley, Cheshire – and attended the County High School in Leftwich. In 1999, aged 15 (a year younger than William Hague did), she famously spoke at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, in a debate on post-devolution Britain. She developed an interest in politics at the age of 6, after seeing her father’s home improvement business struggle. She told the Warrington Guardian that she thought “William Hague is a very strong leader and will make Prime Minister” (the headline described her, horrifyingly, as a “Hague babe”).

This performance (if not the prediction) landed her two school prizes – the Rotary Prize for public speaking, and the Telecom Matrix Prize for politics. She then went on to study history and politics at the University of York, becoming involved in the long running York Student Television. Briefly a presenter (of political discussion programme “Bona Dicta”) she held a number of roles including PR Manager, Advertising Manager, and Commercial Director.

She appeared, along with Jo Swinson and Wes Streeting, in a Guardian feature on student politics in 2010 – noting that “I think it’s great for learning different skills, particularly for debating with other people”.

After losing in Wentworth and Dearne, Donelan took to complaining about Cameron’s position on bringing more women into parliament. She told the Sheffield Star:

I was not forced into politics or given an easy ride as a woman. I would not condone this and find the idea terribly condescending. What matters is that we select the best candidates based on their skill set, not which boxes they tick to meet demographic correctness. Former minister Caroline Flint said she was used as window dressing by Gordon Brown. Tell me what the point is in appointing women if you are shamelessly using and undermining us further?”

and also expressed her views on the matter in a blog post on Conservative Home.

Happily she quickly changed her mind about the PM. By 2011, she told the Evening Standard that her political idol was “David Cameron – because of what he’s done to rebuild the party and I am very much in favour of his compassionate conservatism”.

Onward to Chippenham

After moving to Monkton Park in Chippenham – via Ealing – she was successful in becoming the prospective parliamentary candidate in 2013. At the time, she worked in international marketing and corporate responsibility for World Wrestling Entertainment.

Her campaign was brutally efficient and notably well funded. Chippenham was a key target seat for the Conservatives – but Michelle did her part, writing hundreds of letters on local issues to the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald, and Wiltshire Times. The inevitable car parking campaign prompted delights like this:

I launched my campaign to reduce parking charges back in January before any other parties. The pressure and case that I built up encouraged Wiltshire Council to consult on the charges. While I want to ensure that charges are reduced, I would like to decline the offer to join forces with any organisations that have adopted similar campaigns to piggy back off the work that I have done.”

Never forget who started the great Chippenham car parking campaign of 2014! She also became involved in a campaign to re-open Corsham station, and despite a notably high profile (and ministerial ministers missing trains!) these efforts did not bear fruit.

Donelan will no doubt treasure the moment in the campaign she was described as one of “Cameron’s Cuties” by the Sun, but more notably Boris Johnson suggested that the sky was the limit for her.

A big feature of her public image – as carefully controlled as you would expect from a marketing professional – is her claim not to be a machine politician. She told the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald that:

We have far too many career politicians not in touch with real life – we need more real people that manage a household budget and know what it’s like to struggle.”

Donelan has been quick to highlight her own childhood struggles – she had a secondhand PE uniform, and wasn’t allowed to go on trips, and her grandfather was born under a chip shop. But I would hesitate to describe professional wrestling – and indeed Conservative Future – as real life.

She became MP for Chippenham in 2015, beating incumbent (and Jo Swinson’s partner) Duncan Hames by more than 10,000 votes.

Sample some of the local flavour

Previous universities minister Chris Skidmore famously had a curry named after him, and Michelle Donelan has a couple of Indian food stories of her own. Shortly after she was elected she was banned from attending a Conservative Future celebratory curry night in David Cameron’s constituency of Whitney. Conservative Future was in the process of being disbanded after allegations of bullying – and branches had been told not to hold any more functions. She was encouraged to withdraw from the event as an invited speaker.

As an MP, she also became Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the British Curry Catering Industry. In this position, she nominated The Raj in Chippenham for the prestigious Tiffin Cup, after it won a public vote.

Her maiden speech in July focused on the need to promote vocational training and transform careers education. She has campaigned on issues including domestic violence, schools funding, care and adoption, and fairer funding for schools – recently as minister for children she spearheaded a successful initiative to provide free period products in schools. Her own experience with Lyme’s disease (she was diagnosed in 2016) has let her to work in raising awareness of the potentially deadly condition.

Her strongest higher education position to date has been around senior staff pay – she told the Independent:

Isn’t the answer, therefore, regulation? Because this is a very different scenario than just a free market. This is funded via the taxpayer and via students going to universities who are racking up huge debts.”

Donelan has spoken in the House of Commons in HE on a handful of occasions – arguing in favour of uncapped recruitment, against unconditional offers (in a Westminster Hall debate), against high senior staff pay, and in favour of promoting apprenticeships over degree courses noting her “determination to challenge the outdated perception that university is the only desirable option for the ambitious and motivated.”

In essence it is difficult to see Michelle Donelan as anything other than the fast-tracked career politician she likes to rail against. Clearly popular within the Conservative party, her maternity cover role as Minister for Children looks to have been her path to a DfE role of her own. As befits someone with a background in public affairs, she is very likely to be “on message” – interventions in HE debates can be read as coming from number 10 rather than her own analysis.

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