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Mrs. Johnson’s Boys: the university years

Universities now find themselves between the Scylla of Boris’s out campaign and the Charybdis of Jo’s Green Paper. Martin McQuillan on the Johnson brothers and their outsized impact on UK universities today.
This article is more than 6 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

While one of Charlotte Johnson Wahl’s sons hogged the headlines last week, with the Mayor of London’s decision to campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, it is her other son’s less heralded decisions that could have more profound consequences for higher education in this country. Universities in Britain are now caught between the political ambitions of two brothers, one of whom wants to be Prime Minister, the other who wants a seat at the cabinet.

Firstly, there is Boris, who has made the calculation that his ambition to succeed David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can be most effectively progressed by leading the ‘Leave’ campaign into the referendum on EU membership now scheduled for 23 June. Up until now, the prospects for Leave have been hampered by splits between alternative campaign groups and the unappealing assembly of a collection of the most unsavory and unattractive political figures in the country. An alliance between Nigel Farage, George Galloway, and Chris Grayling is about as toxic a political ensemble as you will find.

However, following the start of the referendum campaign and the end of cabinet collective responsibility on this topic, Leave has been boosted by the arrival of the former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. On his own, the ‘marmitey’ Gove could not swing it for the Leavers, but Boris is a considerable asset, and together they lend creditability to what was beginning to look like an otherwise obsessive, minority interest group.

One might question why the Mayor of a world city, who has spent two terms defending the interests of its globalised financial industry and its ever-expanding cosmopolitan population, should support the UK’s withdrawal from the most valuable trading block on the planet? However, as with most of Boris’ political career, consistency and integrity are not really the point.

His initial stated position on the EU referendum was in fact downright bizarre. He said that he planned to campaign for exit to allow for an empowered negotiation for re-entry. It’s a bit like wanting to get divorced in order to set up a prenup with the same partner. The costs, risks and pain involved in such a process are considerable even if the said partner is willing to put up with such chicanery. He has since clarified his position as ‘out means out’, which will be welcome news to logicians and divorce lawyers everywhere.

These extraordinary political contortions, however, may not be exposed to as much journalistic scrutiny as they should. They will be lost in the noise of claim and counter-claim over the economic benefits of the EU and in the poisonous, voodoo politics of the immigration debate. Boris’ role in all this is to do that thing he does in front of a TV camera, shamelessly lending bonhomie and charm to an otherwise ghoulish collection of the shallow end of yesterday’s political talent pool.

Amongst its assets, Leave can count most of Fleet Street, including the Murdoch titles, the neglectful indifference of the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to EU membership, and the equally unappealing sight of today’s bland political managers mobilizing the resources of the state to defend the status quo. In this context, Boris Johnson is hoping that a successful Leave campaign will result in the premature end of David Cameron’s premiership and the election of a prominent Eurosceptic as party leader. Other leadership contenders have decided that it is better, for now, to remain in the orbit of Cameron than risk the irrelevance that may come with a defeat in the referendum campaign.

This Conservative sitcom would make for entertaining viewing if so much were not at stake for the country and our universities. With 113 days to go until the referendum date, polling is both close and inconclusive. A sober assessment of the situation might suggest that the economic wellbeing, geopolitical standing, social cohesion and cultural affiliation of the country were too important to mess around with for the sake of managing the internal divisions of the Conservative Party, let alone the ambitions of the eldest Johnson child. High politics is one thing; high jinks is quite another.

Universities UK have taken a lead in lending its support to the Remain campaign, citing concerns about funding, staff and student mobility and the UK’s economic competitiveness after a departure from the EU. It is ironic then that before winning the nomination as the Conservative candidate for the London mayoralty, Boris Johnson was David Cameron’s first shadow spokesperson on higher education.

His time in the HE brief was mixed, his classical education and support for tuition fees made him a good fit with vice chancellors while some students thought of him fondly on the basis of his career on television panel shows. However, he lost the Rectorship of Edinburgh University to the Green Party’s Mark Ballard in an ‘Anyone but Boris’ election in 2006. The News of the World later reported his affair with a Times Higher Education Supplement journalist who subsequently resigned her post and took up a job working for Johnson.

David Cameron’s time as leader of the Conservatives may yet be bookended by two Johnson brothers in the HE brief. Little brother Jo is quite different from Boris. While his time in charge of Conservative policy on universities has been less sensational than his sibling, it has been far more effective. He is currently driving forward his Green Paper into legislation, publicly supported by the Prime Minister who he previously served in the No.10 Policy Unit. He is reforming the REF and research councils and has won back the confidence of the Treasury around student finance. Importantly, for universities he has declared his support for the campaign to Remain in the EU.

His plans for universities are just as ideological as his Conservative predecessors. However, Johnson Jr. would seem to be handling a complex brief and potentially hostile audiences with skill. He has the benefit of not having to work with a coalition partner and has succeeded in keeping the difficult parts of HE policy below the radar of the mainstream news agenda while openly challenging universities on access and social mobility. Some would say that generating articles about the numbers of BME students at Oxbridge in the Sunday newspapers was part of a ‘dead cat strategy’ that distracted from the more significant work of dismantling the UK’s system of public universities. You might well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

However, political savvy mixed with departmental competence soon accelerates a junior minister to higher things.

In this sense, it is doubtful that Jo Johnson is any less ambitious that his show-off big brother. Indeed, a couple of years ago, Private Eye quoted an unnamed Oxford contemporary who said “He could not be more different to Boris. It’s as though the humour gene by-passed Jo altogether and he inherited only the ambition gene.”

Younger siblings tend to be highly motivated when in competition with a spoiled first-born child. Their careers also tend to out-last the ephemera of splashy, attention-seeking relatives. One can imagine how Jo will feel when at the next Johnson family Sunday lunch, he finds time amongst the plaudits for Boris’ big splash in the EU debate to explain his plans for the Teaching Excellence Framework, only for his mother to say, ‘that’s nice dear, we are proud of you too’.

If I might offer a classical allusion that the Johnson brothers would approve of, universities now find themselves between the Scylla of Boris’s out campaign and the Charybdis of Jo’s Green Paper. Depending on how this all works out, scientists in a university lab of the future may yet be tempted to send a robot back to the past to have a word with Mrs. Johnson.

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