Nicky Morgan has had a rollercoaster year. In January, she was the unshakeable Education
Secretary planning a major overhaul of the education system. Her plans to turn all schools in England into academies have since fallen through.
She was asked to leave her post and the government by fellow alumna of St Hugh’s, Prime Minister Theresa May. The MP for Loughborough, who was at once seen as a potential future leader of the Conservative party, now finds herself on the periphery of of British politics.
She chuckles, “It’s ironic. Two women in the Cabinet who are both graduates of St. Hugh’s
College—one is Prime Minister and the other has returned to the backbenches.”
I do not expect her warmth and honesty, and she seems far more comfortable discussing
the difficult issues—like her “sacking” from the Cabinet or the government’s plans on grammar schools—than I had imagined. She is immediately keen to discuss Brexit. I ask her if she thinks young people in particular will feel the impact of the decision.
She asserts, “I certainly think there’s still a danger of young people being hit. What I was
referring to during the campaign was how many recruiters and employers would be reluctant to take more people on until they know how Brexit was going to work out.”
She discusses how the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement may clarify the issue of Brexit for
both her and the public, but adds, rather reluctantly, “You know, I think the honest truth is that none of us know how it’s going to happen.”
She does not just associate Brexit with doom and gloom, however, adding optimistically, “Ultimately, we are a great country—innovative, entrepreneurial—and we will recover.”
In light of the US election, I wonder like many commentators whether there is a comparison to be made between the referendum vote and Trump’s campaign.
She states firmly, “There are parallels. But we can’t take the comparisons too far. There is no doubt that there are many people who have been challenged by the changing world. In the Brexit campaign it was all about taking control back—I wasn’t entirely sure what that “back” meant. In the US election, it’s been about “Making America Great Again”—but many of us would argue that America is a successful and powerful country already.”
However, the former Education Secretary doesn’t shy away from the fact that politicians such as herself have to maintain trust with the electorate.
She explains, “We have to be very clear that some politicians have over-promised and under-delivered and sometimes we’ve said to people there are complex problems that can
be solved with simple solutions. I’m not sure we’ve been completely straight with people
about the complexities of what we’re doing.”
As Education Secretary, Morgan met thousands of young people across the UK. I suggest to her that the divisive nature of the EU referendum and the US election put young people off politics altogether.
She disagrees, “It’s really engaging young people—it’s not always positive—but it’s really
got young people talking about politics, talking about the US election and talking about the referendum in a way that I haven’t seen in quite a long time.”
Having been removed from the government so abruptly, her plans left unfinished, I wonder if Morgan regrets any particular point of her time as Secretary. She immediately raises one issue that she focused on during her time in office: the funding of secondary schools.
She says, “One of the things that needs to be set out is the funding of our schools. We
have 152 local funding formulae across the country, and that means that some schools are receiving a lot more funding per pupil than others, while we are asking all of them to do the same.”
I can sense the frustration building as she speaks. After all, she launched a national fair funding formula for schools only for May to say, in Morgan’s own words, “Thank you, but no thank you”. Her disappointment is visible. She adds, “I regret we didn’t get to publish the second part of that consultation and also I would have liked more time to put in place
bits of my white paper on education, particularly focusing on those areas where educational
underperformance is entrenched; and the way young people are just not getting the
best start in life which we as a country owe them.”
Discussing these mainstream subjects are interesting. Yet, Morgan’s passion, education,
is something that I want to explore further. It is evident that she has strong views on the grammar schools policy developed by Theresa May. I ask whether she opposes the reforms.
“Well”, she says, almost as if she is restraining herself, “It is currently constituted in the
consultation—yes, absolutely.” Morgan continues clearly and articulately, “We need to build a strong and consistent education system across the country. And my concern is, I know what departments and big organisations are like, if you have a clear policy direction and throw another policy development in and change direction, the people focus on the new, and don’t deal with what I think is the entrenched underperformance in certain parts of the country…that’s what needs to be focused on.”
Nicky Morgan appears to me to be an efficient, organised and well-prepared politician.
Having joined the Conservative Party at the age of 16, it comes as little surprise that she has “always” been interested in politics.
She played an active role on the Oxford politics scene whilst at university, standing twice for President of OUCA. She lost to fellow Tory, Daniel Hannan MEP, on the second attempt.
Yet, she isn’t the typical Oxford student hack. I was involved in OUCA; but for me the Oxford Union was the big thing. It was nonpartisan—certainly when I was here. but the debating, the ability to meet people—that broadening of horizons that actually says: yes, you can compete on a stage with lots of other people.”
Typically, she then adds that many of her fellow students “are now involved in politics on the national stage.” It is unsurprising that so many of her peers have ended up working in the same circles. It gets me wondering how many of the people I come to know during my time here will appear on the front pages of newspapers in ten years or more.
As we draw to the end of our time together, I feel that Oxford had a profound impact on
this MP, who is still hungry to make a difference.
When I ask her what the future holds, Morgan doesn’t give much away, smiling and saying “One of the things with a political career is that nobody knows what’s around the corner.”