The centre cannot hold for the current state the fees debate

Image: IKON

It’s currently impossible to get odds online for Jo Johnson as next prime minister, but both Betfair and Ladbrokes will offer you 100/1 on the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation as next Conservative Leader. Based on his speech at Reform, you’d maybe want to get a bet in as soon as you can.

If not as obviously ‘on manoeuvres’ as some others in his party, Johnson offered plenty of red meat to backbenchers last week. The speech followed a shambolic emergency debate in the House of Commons, as confusion over Jeremy Corbyn’s position on historic student debt was ruthlessly exploited.

Johnson’s speech was at Theresa May’s preferred think tank, a coup for which might normally have been bestowed on Policy Exchange. But the much-gossiped and trailed prospect of action on repayment thresholds or interest rates never materialised. There was nothing to tackle poorer students’ drop out rates, and nothing but yet another fig leaf on VCs’ pay.

I’ve seen Jo Johnson give a lot of speeches, and last Thursday’s was the worst. This wasn’t vintage Johnson who we’ve seen on other occasions give far more nuanced and coherent offerings, but a demonstration of the fear within Conservative Party HQ. Johnson was tasked with attacking Labour and that’s what he did. The heavily edited version of the speech now online hides a tsunami of words devoted to attacking Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. The more revealing full transcript has been made available by the team at Reform. The same text – probably drafted in CCHQ – was also given to Tory backbenchers to use in last week’s emergency debate on fees.

The Conservative Party have caught the whiff of inconsistency in Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-election statements about abolishing student debt, and they are not wrong to point it out. But last week Labour clarified its position clearly – Angela Rayner, the party’s education spokesperson ruled out abolishing historic graduate debt and said that Labour would only abolish tuition fees for future cohorts of students. Leaving some doubt about this before the election was cynical and deceptive at worst and at best could be described as a product of rank incompetence at the heart of Labour’s policy and spin machine.

But, unless I missed something, Labour went on to lose the election and by doing so they managed to avoid having to actually disappoint anyone on this issue.

If this attack line is the Conservative strategy to claw back support of students and others that voted Labour at the last election, it seems hopelessly inadequate.

Where is the positive offer or the recognition that there are deep-seated concerns about the current tuition fees system beyond the Westminster bubble? Doubling down on the current regime and attacking opponents may be a story for a day, but the stuff of electoral coalition building this is not.

Ultimately, fees are a really important issue. To prove this, the most interesting thing about Thursday’s speech was the announcement that we didn’t get. This time last year, Jo announced an inflationary tuition fee rise. A similar pattern was widely expected this year in time for prospectuses to go to print in the autumn with accurate fee levels for 2018-19. Its absence suggests that – for all the bluster in defence of the current regime – the optics of another fee increase this week were deemed just too toxic.

There’s plenty to say on the policy announcements, on subject-level TEF and we can all wonder what the VCs spend their money on. But the real story here is about a government on the back foot, of a minister making hay out of this week’s inside the beltway row, and of a policy fudge from the Coalition government coming home to roost.

Can the centre hold? Most observers agree that the government will have to do something on fees, and soon. If Johnson doesn’t then look out for “Spreadsheet Phil” who may need to step in and make his own adjustment in the Autumn budget.

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