The HE White Paper is currently sitting on the desks of the No.10 policy wonks. Their beefed up unit charged with ensuring that everything this Government does is consistent with The Plan. So much ink has been spilt in pursuit of the underlying forces, the guiding principles, the motivations. The reason why David Cameron gets up in the morning.
Over the last 12 months, much of the mainstream media has been sent on a wild goose chase. They assumed it would be this unsettling, unknown quantity of ‘coalition’ that would be driving everything. But what if the truth was so much simpler?
Much has been made of the Health White Paper ‘debacle’. But as time passes, and plans solidify, the whole thing looks more and more like a very clever ruse. Publish an inflammatory White Paper. Bring your ideas to their logical conclusions and test them to destruction. Send your Minister out as cannon fodder. Let him be torn apart. Then step in at the end with ‘revised proposals’ and look like you’re saving the policy day. But the recommended changes accepted by the Government today are surely more of a change in tone than substance. So don’t kid yourself; this Government will revolutionise the NHS and they will do so in most of the ways they wanted. And they bring a brand of free-market ideology that would have made Margaret Thatcher’s eyes water, and bizarrely, is not out of tune with the feelings of those on the all-powerful Lib Dem right.
The net result is a radical right-wing shake-up of the NHS. Andrew Lansley’s ego bruised but career very much in tact. The Plan still on track.
The perceived wisdom is that the No.10 wonks are poring through the HE White Paper to ensure that there will be nothing too inflammatory. Nothing that will upset people too much for fear of political ramifications. But what if the reverse is true? What if those same wonks are going through the document line-by-line asking ‘how can we be more radical, how can this go further, push harder?’
A draft White Paper fresh out of BIS, ready for No.10 scrutiny, will be laden down by bland and consensual ideas, David Willetts’ pet projects and initiatives that HEFCE could bore the sector in to submission with through consultation. Not very inspiring and not very radical. And the Treasury are seemingly relaxed about almost everything on the table – in previous years, they would have been the biggest sticking point. As Chancellor, Brown tried to row-back Blair’s reform agenda. But George Osborne is now the great enabler of his and the PM’s shared Plan. They make a potent partnership.
It’s hard to predict how the political landscape will shape up in 2015. The next General Election is a mystery. David Cameron knows that he can only plan for his project to last five years, so he needs to do a lot. And quickly. Next year, when the cuts start to bite and if unemployment rises, it’s going to be harder and harder for the Government to achieve radical reform. Now is their moment and they are pushing hard.
An added bonus for David Cameron and the Tories is that much of the blow-back of their policies seem to be landing on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. A Lib Dem wipeout in 2015 will largely benefit the Conservative Party thanks to the multitude of Tory/Lib Dem marginals. And that prospect looks more likely by the day.
After years under Labour, the higher education sector has become accustomed to Government’s interference on their turf being at worst; badly thought through and impossible to implement. At best they provided new ways to squeeze money out of the Exchequer. But most of the time they were just dull. This wonk remembers countless lost hours poring over bland DIUS documents. Hoping for a spark of life. But we’re living in very different times and we must not underestimate this Government’s reforming zeal or the ideologies that drive them.
No.10 doesn’t care about David Willetts’ plans to improve Unistats. They want to change this country irrevocably and they only have 4 more years to do it. It now looks highly likely that the White Paper will be published in the last week of June. But whenever it finally arrives, expect bold ideas – wide in scope, short on detail. A slab of red meat lobbed in to the fray. Our role in this part of The Plan is written.
But it’s not over ‘til it’s over.