Gillian Keegan: the education secretary in hot water over a hot mic incident

When Gillian Keegan was appointed education secretary by Rishi Sunak, she was the fifth person to hold the role in under four months and the sixth since the 2019 general election.

Less than a year later, she is fighting a major crisis after ordering more than 100 schools to make closures because of concerns that a crumbling aerated concrete could collapse.

The strain of that erupted in public on Monday when she unwittingly vented her frustrations, swearing about a lack of gratitude towards her while others have “sat on their arse and done nothing” while the cameras were still rolling after a broadcast interview.

Born in Leigh, Greater Manchester, the Conservative MP’s rise to the Cabinet was very different from many of her colleagues.

She completed her secondary education at a comprehensive in Knowsley, Merseyside – a far cry from the Prime Minister’s education at the elite Winchester College.

And unlike Mr Sunak and many other senior ministers, she did not study at Oxford University, instead taking on an apprenticeship at a subsidiary of General Motors aged 16.

While working, she obtained a degree in business studies from Liverpool John Moores University before a three-decade career in the manufacturing, banking and IT industries.

Ms Keegan’s work took her to Tokyo and Madrid before she entered the Commons in the safe seat of Chichester, West Sussex, in 2017.

She once hit out at “inverted snobbery” after critics pointed out she appeared to be wearing a £10,000 Rolex watch while discussing striking teachers’ pay demands in an interview.

Her first stint in Government was a junior role in the education department to which she was appointed by Boris Johnson in February 2020.

After a year in health, Liz Truss appointed Ms Keegan to the foreign office when she briefly took Downing Street in September last year.

It was Mr Sunak who brought her into the Cabinet as education secretary when he took over at No 10 in October.

Rishi Sunak becomes new PM
Gillian Keegan was appointed as education secretary by Rishi Sunak in October 2022 (Victoria Jones/PA)

The post has had an extraordinarily high turnover rate, with her immediate predecessor Kit Malthouse lasting just 49 days.

Still, that was an aeon compared with Michelle Donelan’s 36 hours before quit in the Cabinet exodus that forced out Mr Johnson.

Ms Keegan’s 11 months makes her the longest-serving education secretary since Sir Gavin Williamson, who oversaw the exams fiasco during the coronavirus pandemic.

She received praise for ending months of teachers’ strikes by getting a pay deal that was accepted by the unions.

But reviews of her handling of the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) crisis have been far more mixed.

The MP is facing lingering questions about why 104 schools and colleges were ordered to make closures just days before the new term was due to begin.

When her frustrations erupted, she was caught in a “hot-mic” blunder at the end of an interview carried out by ITV News.

“Does anyone ever say, you know what, you’ve done a f****** good job because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing?” she said in front of the journalist and his watchful cameras.

“No signs of that, no?”

The 55-year-old’s language could have been taken as apportioning some blame to predecessors or Cabinet colleagues including the Prime Minister, who has faced criticism over schools funding.

But dispatched to clarify her remarks in a follow-up interview she said she was frustrated because some have not responded to questionnaires about the presence of Raac in schools.

She apologised for her “choice language” and that she described as an “off-the-cuff remark”.

The criticism was about “nobody in particular”, she insisted, but blamed the initial interviewer for “making out (the concrete crisis) was all my fault”.

Downing Street said the language she had used “obviously is not acceptable” and said it was right that she had apologised as opposition MPs seized on her remarks.

Ms Keegan maintained the Prime Minister’s full public backing, but earning a rebuke from No 10 is never a good look for a Cabinet minister.