There has been no formal announcement that Nusrat (Nus) Ghani is the new Science Minister – she just popped up as Minister of State (Minister for Science and Investment Security) on the BEIS website.
Comments by David Willetts at the Conservative Party Conference had earlier confirmed what we’d all suspected – the responses she’s been making to written questions on science and research do mean that she has taken up some version of the science brief.
Born in Dadayal, Kashmir, and growing up in Birmingham’s Ladywood as the daughter of a former headmaster who worked in a biscuit factory, the state-school educated Nusrat Ghani has BA in government and politics from Birmingham City University (then the University of Central England), and a Master’s in international relations from Leeds. The first woman from her family to attend college and university, she became a banker at Goldman Sachs before stints at Age UK, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and on Foreign Office funded education and health campaigns for the BBC World Service in Russia and Afghanistan .
Joining the party in 2009 – in response to David Cameron’s plea for more diverse candidates – she was distressingly described as one of “Cameron’s Cuties” by the Daily Mail (alternatively one of “Dave’s Dolls” – this really was not acceptable even at the time). She initially stood for her home seat of Birmingham Ladywood seat 2010, finishing third behind Labour’s Shabana Mahmood.
This was a matter of no small controversy locally – the (then all-white) constituency association had initially selected Dominic Fisher before being overruled centrally and forced to re-run the process.
In 2013, Ghani was selected for the safe Conservative seat of Wealden via an open primary, having previously been longlisted in Croydon South and Mid Worcestershire. At the time she used her married name, Wheeldon (to facilitate a “Wheeldon for Wealden” campaign, I assume – her husband is Sky’s Director of Public Policy David Wheeldon) One of her first acts on selection was to use a Conservative Home conference to chastise the party for “just banging on about Europe and immigration” – a stance that perfectly suits her for a ministerial role in the Truss administration.
Wheeldon for Wealden
Extending her predecessors landslide vote by 0.4 percentage points (to 57 per cent), her distaste for “banging on about Europe” was visible in her maiden speech:
We must be careful not to turn the debate about our membership of an institution into a close minded attempt to pull up the drawbridge. This country’s at its best when it’s open to the world, embracing opportunities and welcoming people who want to contribute. It will not have escaped the House’s notice that my roots are from further afield than East Sussex.
As a backbencher she received threats online after voting for airstrikes on Syria, successfully called for a review of the actions of Sharia courts in the UK as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, supported HS2, and urged the government to update laws on Sunday trading. She declared early for Leave, alongside Andrea Jenkyns and Penny Morduant – though there was some media speculation that this was to garner support from constituency grassroots members rather than from any deep personal conviction (Wealden voted narrowly for Brexit).
A rectangular red covered bean cushion
In the leadership convulsions that followed she initially backed Boris Johnson, before switching to Theresa May when he withdrew. To mark the Queen’s 90th birthday -Ghani , along with the people of the parish of Withyham, sent:
a rectangular red covered bean cushion, a flat rectangular Union Jack covered pad of fabric with the message ‘now we are 90’, an abstract wooden cross, a scroll of good wishes and a DVD titled ‘three cheers for the Queen’
A surprisingly wholesome moment in a career that usually sees the MP for Wealden either repeating the government attack lines of the day or complaining about rail services. Her other notable campaign was against the term “honour killing” – she asked about this in Theresa May’s first PMQs and later proposed a Private Members Bill, blaming “political correctness” for an unwillingness to address this terminology.
She was appointed chair of the government’s Apprenticeships Diversity Network in 2017, something that clashes oddly with the government’s current approach to social mobility that seems inclined to overlook structural bias in opportunity.
Wines about Europe
But as Brexit madness descended on MPs, her next private members bill sought to ensure only British wines were served in overseas embassies. One for UKRI to bear in mind.
What better way to support our wine industry than by giving the world a taste and by serving UK-produced wine and sparkling wine in our 268 embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world? What could be a more appropriate setting to promote English wine than the famed ambassador’s reception?
Briefly talked about herself as a possible successor to Theresa May, she swung behind Boris Johnson in 2019, following appointment as an Undersecretary of State at the Department for Transport in 2018 alongside a spell in the Whip’s Office. She joined the BEIS select committee when she lost these roles in 2020 (she claimed this demotion was due to her Muslim faith, in a series of leaks that suggested she’d had a particularly rotten time of it), leading on an inquiry into Uyghur slave labour in UK supply chains that saw her selected as runner up for the NATO Women of Peace and Security Prize (behind Nancy Pelosi), though recommendations were rejected by the UK government. She also became vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee.
It also emerged that a firm she had lobbied Chris Skidmore (previously business minister) about – the Belfast Maritime Consortium – had appointed her as non-execuitive chair (at £66,000) after landing £33m from the UKRI Strength in Places fund.
Her BEIS committee work may have been the force behind her selection as a member of the UK delegation to the NATO assembly – as rapporteur to the Science and Technology Committee. Despite the name, this has focused largely on international security issues.
If you’ve not yet spotted anything else in Nusrat Ghani’s background to suggest any previous interest in science it is unlikely that you are alone. Her discussions of science and research in the House of Commons have been limited to support for businesses in her constituency, and – as we shall see – lockdown scepticism. She was a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, but focused largely on her former transport role and her work on extremism.
Fundamentally, there are ministers appointed for their domain expertise and ministers appointed for their loyalty to the party – it is hard not to see Nusrat Ghani as an example of the latter.
And a science minister who, as Covid-19 tore through university campuses in autumn 2020, played a part in founding the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group? At this stage, why not, I guess. She did vote with the government on the second lockdown the group was established in response to, suggesting an eye on the concerns of her local association. But it is a little bit of a worry.