When a teacher in a comprehensive school was asked this week what he thinks of Gillian Keegan, he replied that he has not the faintest idea who she is.
His ignorance is pardonable, for there have been five Education Secretaries in the last five months. To save compilers of pub quizzes the trouble of looking them up, and increase readers’ chances of displaying in any such contest an implausible mastery of recent Cabinet appointments, they are Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan, James Cleverly, Kit Malthouse and Keegan herself.
Labour activists look at Rishi Sunak and some of his colleagues, and are bewildered to see how successful the Conservative Party has been at recruiting and promoting the children of immigrants.
Keegan’s meteoric rise is in some ways just as disconcerting for the Left. She is from Liverpool, and when asked on a Bright Blue podcast to name her biggest bugbear in politics, replied:
“People seeing the party before the person. Identity politics. Dehumanising people who are trying to do their best.”
She went on to insist that politics at Westminster is “much friendlier than you think”, named several Labour MPs with whom she made friends in the women’s parliamentary football club, and instanced as another friend George Howarth (Lab, Knowsley), who like her is a Liverpudlian.
In other words, Keegan explodes the notion that political allegiances have to be tribal. She was born in 1968 into a large Liverpool Catholic family: her father was one of 13 children, so she was surrounded by cousins.
She went to a comprehensive school, St Augustine’s, where 92 per cent of the pupils gained fewer than five O levels, as they were called in those days, and she left at the age of 16 to work at a car factory in Kirby.
But already she had diverged from the path which might have seemed to be marked out for her at her failing school, which closed two years after she left. She wanted to study engineering, her mother insisted this must be possible, and Mr Ashcroft, one of her teachers, stayed behind after school three days a week in order to coach her in the necessary subjects, such as technical drawing.
To general astonishment, including her own, she got 10 O levels, having done the subjects considered suitable for boys as well as those regarded as the preserve of girls. Her ability “to suck up knowledge”, as a colleague at Westminster describes it, was already evident.
Mr Ashcroft urged her to apply for an apprenticeship at a local car factory in Kirby which belonged to General Motors. This she did, and found it fascinating. The factory employed 2,500 people, mainly women, who were remarkable for their energy, and Keegan, by rotating through every department, was one of the few people who saw how it all fitted together.
The union rep tried to recruit her, but she hated his attempts to strong-arm her, and refused. The union called many strikes, which she could see were going to be disastrous for the union’s members, since GM could shift production elsewhere in the world.
The factory closed, and meanwhile Derek Hatton, of the Militant Tendency, had infiltrated the Labour council and was wrecking Liverpool itself. Keegan saw this, and was appalled.
She supported Margaret Thatcher. Her grandfather, a coal miner, did not: his loyalties lay with Joe Gormley, moderate leader in the 1970s of the National Union of Mineworkers, succeeded by the altogether more extreme and intemperate Arthur Scargill, who in the strike of 1984-85 led the NUM to perdition.
Keegan did not as a young woman become a politician. She had fallen in love with business, with working out how to get things done, and for 27 years worked in increasingly senior positions for various multi-national companies, spending eight years in Spain and also visiting Japan at frequent intervals, taking 100 or 200 flights a year.
In 2014, by which point she was thinking that although she enjoyed this it might be time for a change, she went to the theatre in London with her husband, Michael Keegan: a rare event, for he too was a busy executive.
In the interval, she was by chance introduced, by a friend of her husband, to Anne Jenkin, who within 15 minutes perceived that Keegan had the potential to be an excellent MP, and invited her to tea at the House of Lords to discuss it.
Keegan started, at the age of 46, a second apprenticeship in what she hoped would become her second career, politics. She was elected a local councillor in Chichester, given cabinet responsibilities there, joined the local hospital trust and for the general election of 2015 was selected as the parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of St Helens South and Whiston.
While fighting that seat she stayed with her parents, gazing up at the Artex ceiling she had known as a child. Her oldest friends are still those she met at school.
Despite standing as a Conservative, she found no difficulty in getting on well with members of the public in Liverpool. Only some activists were difficult.
Keegan described herself, on a recent podcast with Nick Robinson, as “very chatty”. An observer remarks that she has no difficulty striking up a conversation with anyone from a duchess to a dustman, and gets to know the cleaners and security guards in her department.
One of Keegan’s colleagues said of the way she took to politics:
“She did absolutely love it. She’s got this real hunger for learning. She knows what she doesn’t know. She’s a very astute judge of character. She’s got no self-importance.
“A lot of politicians, they put on their public face mask, when they come home they take it off, but eventually they forget to take it off and become that person. She’s not like that.”
From 2015 Keegan was Director of Women2Win, the organisation set up by Lady Jenkin and Theresa May to identify and mentor women who have the potential to become distinguished Conservative parliamentarians, but may well have never thought of going into politics.
At the last moment, a week after Theresa May had called the general election of 2017, Andrew Tyrie decided to stand down after 20 years as MP for the safe seat of Chichester, and Keegan was elected in his place as one of only six new Conservative women MPs.
She served on the Public Accounts Committee, and as Parliamentary Private Secretary to various ministers, before leaping to greater notice as one of the supporters of Rory Stewart in the 2019 leadership election
Keegan introduced him at his launch meeting (she can be seen at minute 16 on this recording), held in a circus tent between the London Eye and the railway running in to Charing Cross, and attended by a large number of the general public, with 6,000 more following the event online.
She said in her commendably short speech, delivered with a welcoming smile, that “only one candidate stands out in this race for bravery and tells it straight”.
Afterwards she explained, on the Women With Balls podcast, that it was obvious Boris Johnson was going to win, he and Stewart were “the stand-out communicators”, and Stewart “broadened the appeal of the Conservative Party – young people loved him”.
Stewart himself yesterday told ConHome:
“I think she is wonderful – one of the most thoughtful engaged politicians that I know – with a proper balance of pragmatism and idealism and real ability.”
In February 2020 Johnson made her Under-Secretary for Apprenticeships and Skills, a highly appropriate post given her own experience as a 16-year-old apprentice, her tremendous enthusiasm for this form of learning, and her many years in business.
What “an odd role”, she later said, it is being a minister. In business, you are responsible for delivery, and if you fail, out you go. In government, the civil service is responsible for delivery, and as a minister you are “trying to find out how you get stuff done with that arm’s length relationship”.
Promotion followed, in September 2021, to Minister of State for Care and Mental Health, then demotion during the brief Truss prime ministership to Under-Secretary for Africa (Keegan had backed Sunak), followed by the leap into the Cabinet as Education Secretary.
Yesterday morning she was sent out to do the media round, taking questions about the resignation the night before of Sir Gavin Williamson after accusations of bullying. On The Today Programme she was asked why the PM was “so sad” to lose Sir Gavin, and replied:
“It’s always sad to lose a colleague. Nobody takes any glee when these things happen… He did apologise which was the right thing to do because his language was unacceptable to my colleague Wendy Morton.”
One could see why Keegan had been sent out to deploy this mellifluous mixture of charity and criticism. At the end of the interview, when she was challenged about free school meals, she became rather brilliantly dull: never losing the human touch, indicating her heart was in the right place, but giving nothing away in advance of next week’s Budget.
As Education Secretary, she has the advantage of already knowing the department, and having two Ministers of State, Nick Gibb (his return requested by her) and Robert Halfon who know it too.
The Prime Minister said in August that “a good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better”.
Keegan will press ahead with the promotion of apprenticeships and skills. The teacher mentioned at the start of this piece expressed the wish that that UCAS, the admissions system for universities, could be combined with admissions for apprenticeships.
Whether businesses will want to do that – whether applications for apprenticeships, which are largely local, can be combined with applications for universities, most of which are not local – is questionable.
Sunak favours a British baccalaureate, ending the too early specialisation which takes place in British schools, and the creation of a network of elite technical institutions to transform vocational training, but that would cost money.
“She was so excited,” says one who saw Keegan when she heard that she got the job, “so up for the challenge.”
How high can Keegan go? She herself has said, “I much prefer to be under-estimated than over-estimated.”
But in a politics over-stocked with PPE graduates from Oxford, she has shown that an apprentice from Liverpool who talks like a normal person and knows how to run a business can profit from the Conservative Party’s inexhaustible urge to reinvent itself in order to bring itself closer to the nation it wishes to go on governing.
And there was once an Education Secretary called Margaret Thatcher whom her colleagues did not identify as a competitor for the highest office, and who went on to surprise them.