Leader: Howard should choose principle over populism

November 14, 2003

For a new Conservative spokesman to argue, as Tim Yeo did this week, that he needed time to review existing policies before confirming his support for them would seem perfectly reasonable. But when the policy in question is seen as his party's most popular pledge, adding to the government's short-term problems and widely touted as an election-winner, observers are bound to smell a rat. If there was no question of ditching the controversial policy of abolishing all tuition fees and cutting the number of higher education places, he would surely have been keen to say so.

Even the subsequent "clarification" by party officials that the review would concern the implementation of the policy, rather than its substance, left plenty of wriggle room. The Tories could still claim to be abolishing fees if they came up with a different contribution scheme, or even a graduate tax. Plenty of Labour supporters wish that their own proposals had been given a similar spin. Nor would a U-turn oblige the Tories to support the forthcoming higher education bill since their objections to the proposed Office for Fair Access would be reason enough to oppose the legislation.

The Liberal Democrats picked up immediately on Mr Yeo's "bad start", obviously relishing the prospect of being the only one of the main parties to oppose fees. Others will see it as an extremely encouraging start because you do not have to be an enthusiast for top-up fees to consider the Tory policy inconsistent, opportunist and an unwarranted threat to large parts of the higher education system.

Michael Howard was largely silent on the issue as shadow chancellor, but he will have seen enough to know that there will be awkward questions to answer when an imminent election steps up the level of scrutiny. How many places will have to go for even the current fees to be abolished? Who will decide which courses are to close? And how does this anti-market approach square with Conservative ideology?

Whichever way the fees decision goes, Mr Yeo is in for a tricky time. Even with senior ministerial support, he is going to find it difficult to shadow two such key departments as health and education effectively. And he will either have to promote a higher education policy that even some senior colleagues consider disreputable or risk the wrath of the tabloid press and many of the party's supporters in changing tack. Who wants to be the newcomer who throws away his party's most potent electoral weapon?

The line of least resistance for the new administration is to maintain its current position in this parliament. Then - as long as Labour has succeeded in introducing top-up fees and been returned to office - to argue that it is too late to alter the basis of university funding. In the unlikely event of a Tory victory, however, Mr Howard would be faced with turning the higher education clock back in a way that no other advanced nation would contemplate.

While the rest of the world expanded its universities to serve the knowledge economy and fulfil the rising aspirations of its people, Britain would be moving in the opposite direction. Up to 450,000 students - many from naturally Conservative homes - would be denied a place. Whole disciplines would be decimated in a contrived hysteria over supposedly Mickey Mouse courses. Several universities - some, presumably, in the party's target territory - would close unless the new government broke its tax-cutting promises.

The Tories' opportunism has got the party into a mess from which it will be difficult, but not impossible, to escape with any credit. The principled (and prudent) course would be to rethink the policy, but to do so will take courage seldom seen in modern politics.

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