When is a top-up fee an individualised graduate tax? Answer: never, according to the Department for Education and Skills. Ministers will continue to refer to variable fees, and this autumn's legislation is expected to do the same. But the inelegant term came from somewhere, and the assumption is that it was to have been used in briefings for sceptical Labour backbenchers. After the ridicule that has been poured on it this week, it is safe to assume that another form of words has been found, but the approach will be the same.
Just as Margaret Thatcher never succeeded in rebranding the poll tax as the community charge, today's ministers are stuck with top-up fees. They had their chance to introduce a graduate tax and chose not to. But that does not mean they should stop trying to convince MPs that the proposed system has many of the same characteristics.