What a difference a year makes, or perhaps more accurately what a difference an election can make. In 2016, you could barely move for politicians in the top 10 of the Power List. New Prime Minister Theresa May was sitting pretty at number one, and with a weak and divided Labour Party, she seemed unassailable. Jeremy Corbyn almost didn’t make the cut, sneaking in at 41.
Just 12 months later the tables have turned, and so has the complexion of the Power List. The resurgence of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May’s tragedy of an election campaign have been well documented, the ramifications of a weak government and an arguably weaker Prime Minister are now being felt.
Reflecting this shift in power, the composition of the Power List has altered substantially. Politicians have lost their influence on the list, and are replaced with more traditional figures from the higher education sector. In part this is a direct result of the 2017 election and the resultant weak government with no overall majority (without the Democratic Unionist Party – Arlene Foster at 49), but it is also a reflection that with the Higher Education and Research Act having passed into law the political influence on the sector will be lessened as we transition to implementation and a new architecture for regulation.
The decision to jointly place Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at number 10 on the list, wasn’t just the opportunity to score an easy snigger from our readers, but a legitimate reflection of how the power has shifted. Despite the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour only won 4 more seats (262) than Gordon Brown managed in 2010 (258), the surge in his personal popularity and vote share for the party has allowed a perverse narrative to emerge that somehow he was the victor of the election. For the avoidance of doubt, he does, of course, remain Leader of the Opposition and only enjoys lukewarm support from the majority of the Parliamentary Party. Can someone break the news to the crowds at Glastonbury?
However, when it comes to the policy landscape, it is Corbyn’s Labour and not the government who are setting the agenda. It was Labour with their pledge to abolish tuition fees which captured the attention, which unquestionably invigorated the Labour campaign and helped to improve youth turnout in particular. Labour was able to set out a positive vision for the future, whereas the Tories were left to defend an unpopular status quo.
With Theresa May’s days at Downing Street surely numbered, she will probably survive for another 18 months because frankly, no-one else (not even Mr Corbyn) would want to be the Prime Minister that has to finalise the Brexit deal. Once the Brexit terms are concluded, I suspected Mrs May’s tenure at Number 10 Downing Street would be concluded shortly after (either through a face-saving resignation or more ruthlessly by a backbench coup). Her successor, Labour or Conservative, will undoubtedly blame her for a terrible deal.
Other political figures are relatively few and far between on the list in 2017. Given that that Brexit is still the single most important factor for the sector, Michel Barnier is placed 5th. David “Brexit Bulldog” Davis is conspicuous in his absence, rather like the detail of the UK’s negotiating position. Jo Johnson (7th) is widely regarded to have done a good job as Minister, particularly with the deft footwork he showed in the dying days of the last government to get his legislation through both Houses. He is engaging and interested in the detail and retains his place in the top 10.
A special word for the one man attack dog, Andrew Adonis who appears to have lost control of his senses, or at least the fingers with which he tweets. His rants in 140 characters have become increasingly wild, but it has thrust him onto the power list (21st). To think he was once seen as a thoughtful evidence-based politician. If Lord Adonis was really concerned by over-paid, under-worked fat cats, he might want to take a closer look at his colleagues in the House of Lords before taking a pop at staff in the university sector who are paid considerably less than their international counterparts.
If they say a week is a long time in politics, then a year is an eternity.
See the full 2017 HE Power List on Wonkhe