Lunch with Boris: sceptical Tories and no Jamie Oliver

October 6, 2006

Claire Sanders reports from the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth

Poor Boris. Followed to every fringe event by a peculiar combination of Tory ladies and hacks, he was bound to come a cropper. Like a stand-up comic before ever more demanding audiences, he was clearly there to be funny and to deliver his trademark blunders. And deliver he did.

Speaking at Monday night's event organised by The Daily Telegraph , he waded into child booster seats and Sharia. At an earlier event he laid into celebrity chef Jamie Oliver; and at the Politeia event on higher education on Tuesday Mr Johnson took a swipe at environmentalism, possibly a mistake, given its prominence in Conservative policies.

Which is all a bit of a shame, as he had a serious job to do to sell the new Tory policy on higher education to largely sceptical audiences.

Many at a packed event organised by the Association of Colleges earlier in the week - attended by Shadow Vocational Minister John Hayes - were clear that we "need more welders not graduates".

"Why are we sending young people to university to do pointless degrees when there are not enough people with proper vocational skills?" asked one participant.

Another lady lamented the lack of manners in removal men. "They arrived late and never apologised," she said. "What skills are we teaching young people?"

As Mr Johnson commented at the Politeia event: "When Conservatives make remarks like this, they sound as if they are saying to the vast bulk of the British people that they should forget their aspirations and get a trade."

To judge by Bournemouth audiences, there are many in the Tory Party who still feel that expansion has been a mistake, that the polytechnics should have remained polytechnics and that too many students are doing media studies instead of gaining "proper skills".

Mr Johnson made an engaging attempt to convert them before heading off into the media storm that gathered over his reported attack on Mr Oliver's quest to improve school meals.

But The Times Higher can reveal that, far from hiding from the press as has been reported, Mr Johnson was merely seeking a quiet space in the Conservative press office in which to write his Opinion piece for this paper.

"I was close to deadline," he commented. "Really had to get that piece done."

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