This article is from the April issue of Total Politics

David Willetts has shown himself to be a very patient man. Not least because it seems that no matter what he says or does, people won’t stop referring to the size of his brain and his ability (or otherwise) to use it. Under this kind of cranial scrutiny, less even-tempered men would have long ago flown Parliament for the sanctuary of the nearest ivory tower.

Not Willetts. This year marks his 20th as an MP, and he’s spent much of his time in Westminster on the frontbenches – as paymaster general in John Major’s government, then in a whole host of shadow cabinet posts, including education, welfare, and trade and industry, and now as minister for universities and science. It was a remark by a veteran lobby hack that landed him with the nickname ‘Two Brains’ – a reference to his interest in social theories and academic approach to policy. Now, it’s become almost too easy to assess all Willetts’ actions on the basis of whether he’s considered to have engaged one, both or neither of his brains. Even the Speaker likes to indulge himself from time to time. During a question time in December, he corrected Willetts on the numbering of his answers with a pointed: “I am reluctant to argue with Two Brains, but I think he’ll find the link is with question 14.”

However, Willetts remains, as you would expect given his nickname, philosophical about the assumptions that have been made about him.

“I guess there are worse nicknames to have,” he says, smiling wryly at the question. He considers for a moment: “‘Two Chins’ would be a lot worse.” There are no prizes for guessing which of his cabinet colleagues might be known as that, but Willetts delicately refrains from making the joke. Instead, he reveals that he’s always thought of himself as a pragmatic, rather than intellectual, person.

“The irony is that, coming from Birmingham, I always like to think you can actually contribute in a very practical way. One of the things I love about this universities and sciences job is that in this area there are real things you can do to help young people in the future. So, I hope there’s never an indication of being detached from reality – there are few things more real than the kind of stuff that I do here.”

‘Here’ is his top-floor office in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It boasts an entire wall of glass looking out over Westminster Abbey, with his desk pushed right up against it. “I always think I’ve done well out of that deal,” Willetts says. “I get to look at the Abbey, but I can’t imagine they get much out of looking back at us.” And the ‘stuff’ he does here includes the wholesale reform of higher education funding, attempting to widen access to university, and attracting the best scientific researchers to Britain.

Higher education and science don’t necessarily make up the most cohesive portfolio of responsibilities, but what pulls it all together for Willetts is his near-obsession with social mobility. For him, it goes beyond just getting students into universities – it’s about changing the way British society functions.

“I see social mobility as a kind of true meritocracy, that people are not held back from achieving what they’re capable of by their background or other disadvantages – for example, having disabilities. The paradox of Britain since the war, if you look at the debate in the 1950s, is that people assumed we were going to achieve it, but that a kind of meritocracy would be rather ruthless. The only reason why you had a low income was because you didn’t have the abilities to be in a high-income job.” So, do we live in a meritocracy now? Willetts doesn’t attempt to hide the extent of the challenge he thinks is before him.

“No, we don’t. All the evidence is that progress on social mobility has stalled.” He can be extremely blunt when the situation demands it, it seems. He elaborates: “For me, as a Conservative who believes in an open, free-market society, social immobility is morally wrong, a mistake and a waste. What was it they said about Napoleon? Something like: ‘It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake’ – I feel like that about social mobility.”

There are both moral and practical dimensions to his work in trying to improve the situation, he says. “If you’re wasting people’s abilities, your growth rate is low, your economy is less successful. You don’t have the round peg in the round hole. You have people who’ve got abilities that aren’t being harnessed, and that’s a bad thing, too.”

What marks Willetts out as a thinker is his ability to grasp the pragmatic considerations of an idea. Unlike many who are wedded to the idea of social mobility in its purest form, he’s willing to admit that it doesn’t just mean improving life for everyone; the term ‘mobility’ implies that there can be downward movement as well as the ‘levelling up’ politicians are so fond of. However, he has an intellectual work-around for that problem.

“That assumes that it’s a zero-sum game, and that’s a rather static view both of a society and an economy. Social mobility is a strange combination. It’s a bit like being top of the class, which is a zero-sum game, and like being well-educated, which isn’t a zero-sum game. Your being well-educated doesn’t deprive someone else of being well-educated.”

Willetts isn’t alone among coalition ministers in trying to do something about social mobility. Along with Iain Duncan Smith, Danny Alexander and Michael Gove, he sits on Nick Clegg’s group on the subject. In April last year, they produced a strategy that aims “to tackle unfairness at every stage of life” and make sure that “everyone has a fair chance to do better than their parents”.

These are big ambitions and, appropriately, the programme Willetts has helped to design to achieve them is ambitious in scale.

“You have to provide better access to early-years provision, you need to reform schools, you need to have more apprenticeships, you need to improve on access to university, you need second and third chances for people who perhaps missed out on education and want more training through their working lives. So, at every stage of the process, we have to put our shoulder to the wheel.” Willetts calls this intervention “all through the life cycle”, but admits that “measuring progress is hard”. It’s indicative of his approach to his brief that, as soon as you ask what success means, he starts talking about birth cohort studies and the vast amount of data that needs to accrete before you can judge if your policies are having the desired effect. The next study will take place on people born this very year, which is “one of the things I’ve been able to secure here with my responsibilities for science and research”.

So much for the policy. What about the politics? Having heard him talk about such long-term aims, it’s hard to see how any of it will translate into the kind of progress his party will need to be able to cite in 2015 if it is to win an outright majority, but Willetts has a stab at explaining how he thinks he can do his bit.

“You can aim to improve things within five years. For instance, I chair a little group on ‘access to the professions’ where we can see what they’re doing to ensure that they’re not missing out on talent.” We quickly return to the theoretical side of things, though: “I’m completely meritocratic about this. This isn’t social engineering, in the sense of ‘they’re not very good, but we’ve got to have them because we’ve got to achieve some quota’. That’s not the approach – it’s absolutely meritocratic. The question is: are there people with abilities that aren’t being spotted by conventional routes that can be spotted if you’re a bit more flexible? That’s the challenge.”

He is a minister who attends cabinet, but he’s not a secretary of state. Given his long experience, and his faithful service in the shadow cabinet during all 13 years of Conservative opposition, Willetts might reasonably have expected a department to himself when the time came.

This was partly down to what he calls the “arithmetic inevitability“ of the coalition, but as another Conservative MP with long experience in Parliament identifies, it fits into the pattern of a career that has always fallen slightly short of its owner’s potential. “He’s one of these people who, colleagues feel, never quite fulfilled his potential, and I suspect it was because he’s regarded as an intellectual. That’s a very dangerous thing in the Tory Party.”

Once again, it comes back to his ‘two brains’ reputation: Willetts might be very bright, but it seems a given that, “like a lot of clever people, his political judgement wasn’t always very good”. Speaking to The Observer in 2010, Richard Reeves, then director of Demos, said that expecting Willetts, the “public intellectual parliamentarian”, to engage in the day-to-day hurly-burly of politics was asking a bit much. “It’s like taking an elegant chess player and putting him on a racket ball court,” Reeves said. “He’s too subtle a thinker to make crude political claims.”

This sense that Willetts lacks some political acumen must not be confused with unpopularity; it is almost universally agreed that he is a very charming and well-liked member of the House. His PPS, Nicky Morgan, says that she often finds him in the division lobbies, deep in conversation with fellow MPs on a whole host of different topics, and that his stories from his time as a Treasury advisor under Thatcher and his stint in the Whips’ Office during the Major government are very popular with colleagues.

However, it’s never quite been enough – in 2005, there was briefly a suggestion that Willetts would run a leadership campaign, but he soon ruled it out because of a lack of support.

The role of the ‘ideas man’ in politics has received rather more attention than usual of late with the news that Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s blue-sky thinking man, will be taking a sabbatical from Downing Street to go to California with his family.

Unsurprisingly, Willetts says that he “always got on very well” with Hilton, who “livened things up”. “You need some kind of grit in the oyster. Having worked at No 10 myself, you need people who challenge, who take an alternative view, who think strategically. Steve has all of those qualities, but there are others as well, and we’re going to carry on needing that because of its part in ensuring that a government is in a permanent process of renewal.”

One of the ideas that Hilton is widely credited with popularising is the big society. However, he wasn’t the first ‘ideas man’ to have a shot at softening the Tory brand. In 1994, Willetts published a paper entitled Civic Conservatism, in which he set his party the task of “designing institutions and arrangements that encourage our natural reciprocal altruism”. In many ways, Willetts set out Cameron’s flagship idea over a decade before the latter even became leader of his party. I asked Willetts if it frustrated him to see someone else being so closely associated with an idea that he came up with himself.

He considers for a long moment, then says: “What does frustrate me is that, in the long years of opposition, it took a long time for the Conservative Party to get to grips with some of this stuff. I think we have now. If you look at the social action projects that the members of the new intake have done, their commitment to their constituencies, their understanding of the importance of the voluntary sector, we’ve made great progress. In politics, you have to be patient.” All the evidence suggests that Willetts is going to have to continue to be patient; there is no guarantee at this stage that his party will win a majority at the next general election, or that, even if it does, his highly intellectual approach to his brief will have delivered enough substantive change to justify his promotion ahead of others.

But the man they call ‘Two Brains’ is also in many ways the author of his own failure. For instance, many politicians in his place would use such a success story – the Birmingham grammar schoolboy who made it to Oxford, became a self-made millionaire and reached the upper echelons of government – as a shortcut for explaining his ideas about social mobility. When I suggest this, however, he looks horrified: “One mustn’t… well, you don’t want to get into this kind of Monty Python sketch – ‘Who’s the poorest? We were so poor, we lived on a lump of coal for a week’ or something.

“I’m not claiming to have come from a background of extraordinary deprivation. I came from a totally normal background. I’m not claiming to have pulled myself up from an incredibly tough upbringing – my mother was a teacher and my father an engineer. But it’s an incredible privilege to have this opportunity of being in government and doing something as worthwhile as what we do in BIS.”

Willetts’ reluctance to use this kind of personal narrative for political advantage is typical of his approach: let the ideas, not the personalities, lead the way. It’s uncertain whether this high-mindedness, or indeed his patience, will ever be fully rewarded. What is absolutely certain is that no one is going to stop calling him ‘Two Brains’ any time soon.

Tags: Big Society, David Willetts, Issue 46, Social mobility, Steve Hilton