David Ross, a multimillionaire Conservative Party donor, has failed in his attempt to become chairman of Ofsted, the schools standards body.
The Independent has learned that Mr Ross, co-founder of the Carphone Warehouse chain, has not made the final shortlist of three applicants. The ruling, by an independent selection panel, will spare Nicky Morgan, the new Education Secretary, a difficult and potentially controversial decision in her first weeks in the job.
She will interview the three remaining names in the frame, who are understood not to have any links with political parties. It means that her choice is likely to enjoy the support of the three main parties.
Her predecessor Michael Gove, who was demoted to Chief Whip in this week’s cabinet reshuffle, was accused of politicising the Ofsted post after he failed to renew the three-year contract of Baroness (Sally) Morgan, a senior aide to Tony Blair as prime minister. The decision sparked a political storm because Lady Morgan is highly regarded in the education world. She will depart this autumn.
Some Tories believed Mr Ross was well qualified for the task of raising standards in England’s schools as he founded a chain of 25 academies. But teaching unions were worried he could have faced a potential conflict of interest because Ofsted has responsibility for inspecting his schools.
Mr Ross has donated about £220,000 to the Conservatives and is a member of a dining club with regular access to David Cameron in return for donating more than £50,000 annually. The Liberal Democrats and Labour were worried about a Tory donor landing the Ofsted job.
It is believed that his rejection was not connected with Mr Gove’s departure from the Department for Education. Insiders said the decision was taken by an independent panel that includes Chris Wormald, the department’s permanent secretary, and Paul Marshall, the lead non-executive member of the department’s board, who is a prominent Liberal Democrat . He chairs a leading hedge fund and Ark Schools, an academy group.
Allies of Mr Gove denied that Lady Morgan was dropped on party political grounds. They argued that Mr Marshall’s place on the panel showed the process of choosing her successor was an impartial one.
It is not clear whether Mr Ross’s Tory links or his involvement in schools counted against him. If either factor did, then it was surprising that he made the initial shortlist of four. The names of three remaining candidates have not been disclosed.
Another Tory donor, Theodore Agnew, who set up a group of academies in Norfolk, was believed to have been favoured by Mr Gove. But he pulled out after objections from David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools minister. Mr Agnew said: “It’s a very important role and if it had not been considered controversial I would have applied for it.”
Mr Laws will join Ms Morgan in interviewing the three runners left in the Ofsted race. The Lib Dems are hoping for a period of calm on education after a series of rows with Mr Gove. The two parties worked closely together on education reforms when the Coalition was formed, but Mr Gove’s relationship with Nick Clegg broke down.
The Department for Education said: “As with all public appointments, the appointment process is being conducted in accordance with the requirements set by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the guidance issued by the Cabinet Office Public Appointments Unit. An independent panel decides who is longlisted, shortlisted and interviewed. After this, they recommend to ministers a list of suitable candidates.”