Tag-team policy wrestling with Bill, Boris and Ed

March 3, 2006

The "big three" higher education spokesmen did battle for the first time in Parliament this week debating the cap on top-up fees. But they looked more frightened of the braying students than of each other.

In a debate organised by the National Union of Students, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell tried to look defiant as he told students that bringing in top-up fees was the right thing to do.

"I'm pleased to be here today," he insisted, gulping gently. "And I look forward to answering your questions."

Boris Johnson, the Conservative spokesman, took to the stage next, appearing as controlled as his wild mop of hair. He began with a manic run through of his family tree.

"It was in higher education that my parents met and nine months later I was produced," he said, adding: "My great-grandfather was an itinerant fairground wrestler until he did a postgraduate degree."

The students looked bemused. Boris galloped through every higher education policy a minister could muster.

"No wonder academics feel hard done by," he said, attacking low pay in higher education. "We should change the tax law to encourage people to give to their place of education."

Kat Fletcher, NUS president and every inch a glamorous TV presenter in the making, tried to stop the ranting by passing him a note. Boris crumpled the note and looked madder. But eventually he stopped.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Ed Davey, who bears a remarkable resemblance to comedian Harry Enfield, stood up looking terrified.

"I'm going to try to follow that," he quipped. Of course, he had the easy job. "I want to confirm that Lib Dems still oppose top-up fees," he announced to rapturous applause.

At the end of the day, the debate confirmed two things. The first is that Boris and Bill, unusual bedfellows, are sticking together on variable fees.

Not even the pretty teary-eyed mature student who told them about her difficulty supporting her family could sway them.

The second was that, while they were prepared to touch on other subjects such as fox hunting and the Daily Mail , neither of them would talk about the dreaded cap on tuition fees.

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