The brief encounter

October 13, 1995

Style matters in politics. Anyone who doubts this need only contemplate the respective political trajectories of the last two education secretaries. John Patten, widely regarded as the most disastrous member of John Major's administration, and Gillian Shephard who, particularly after her well-received speech this week, has rapidly reached the status of possible leadership contender. Yet policy differences between the two have been minimal - and neither has done anything to ease the squeeze on higher education.

The only difference is that Mrs Shephard has agreed to talk about higher education in general - but still not about the money. She does not appear to be getting her hands on any extra and may well be losing to the Treasury the large chunk which may be saved on student loans .

Given her agreeable persona, Mrs Shephard's intemperate reaction to former higher education minister Alan Howarth's defection - describing his decision as "vindictive" and questioning his state of mind - was an uncharacteristic outburst. Perhaps the explanation lies in the intractable difficulties all education secretaries face in their dealings with higher education and in consequence with the junior ministers responsible for the sector. Mr Howarth's demonstration of disillusionment - which is by no means confined to higher education - may be the most spectacular yet, but he is not the first holder of the post whose subsequent career showed a degree of disquiet when faced with ugly realities.

Could it be something to do with the job? It is the archetypal first ministerial posting, making current incumbent Eric Forth - who also differs from recent predecessors in being more than fully occupied with other responsibilities - an exception. Are they tested and found politically wanting?

Is it something to do with the sort of people appointed? Most academics would argue that few British governments, least of all those of the past 16 years, have really understood higher education. But both Margaret Thatcher and John Major have realised that this is not a safe posting for the dim party loyalist. The line of succession running through George Walden, Robert Jackson, Alan Howarth and Nigel Forman may not have won the universal approval of the system they were responsible for, but not even the most intellectally arrogant could deny one fact about them. By any standards, including those of Westminster - nothing like so neanderthal as some critics would have it - they are extremely bright. Similar qualities have been displayed from the opposition front benches by Andrew Smith and Jeff Rooker.

So how does the highly intelligent, analytical politician, possessor both of what Denis Healey defined as hinterland and of a disposition to ask difficult questions, respond to such an appointment? One approach may be that followed by Tim Boswell and, on the Labour benches, Andrew Smith. Master your brief. Do the job competently. Do not rock the boat. And move on to the things you really want to do in politics - Mr Boswell to a post in agriculture, Mr Smith with a fair shot at being the next chancellor but three.

Others have clearly been frustrated both by their own powerlessness and by intractable political circumstances. Mr Howarth may be fondly remembered as a civilised and intelligent chap, but does anyone remember much that he actually did as minister? Does anybody remember much of any of them, apart from Mr Jackson's abrasive antics and his disastrous loan scheme which seemed to be designed to ingratiate himself with what Mr Howarth has dubbed the Caliban tendency in the party?

It is funding on which they founder: an untenable status quo is held in place by refusal to tax, multiple demands on the public purse and a political culture paralysed by fear of offending middle-class voters. The Government reflex to prevaricate and hope that someone else will make the difficult decisions was replicated on the Labour side by the suppression of Jeff Rooker's document on the system and his departure from the front bench. Student unions, with much more to lose from the debate, have been far more willing to ask the awkward questions than either major party.

Can anyone wonder that after experience of such a system Mr Howarth changed parties, Mr Jackson turned occasional rebel and Mr Walden tired of the game altogether? Add in the reselection difficulties faced by Mr Forth and his shadow Bryan Davies and you have to wonder if the higher education brief will not become, like an undesirable council flat, hard to let.

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