The Conservative Party conference begins this weekend and, as ever, Boris Johnson will be doing a turn. But this year his attempts to upstage David Cameron will be particularly close to the bone.
It is hard to imagine that the bumbling blond bombshell who once had university bigwigs rolling in the aisles might become prime minister, but, by all accounts, a tilt at the top job is the motive for Boris’ impending return to Westminster as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
I will never forget the first time I heard him speak in person, when he was the shadow higher education minister in the mid-2000s. He was addressing a conference at the Bloomsbury headquarters of Universities UK, and it wasn’t hard to understand the hype: he was warm, charismatic and his speech comprised a series of jokes peppered with the odd reference to higher education. Most of the audience seemed delighted.
But I wasn’t. Perhaps I was being a po-faced lefty, but it seemed insulting that someone seeking support to be the next higher education minister had used a serious platform to deliver what was, in effect, an after-dinner speech.
Anyone who engaged with Boris during his time as shadow higher education minister will have any number of similar anecdotes: late arrivals to events; visible lack of preparation; reliance on jokes about Latin
and Ancient Greece. There were jokes around the education sector’s dinner tables too – but even their very subject matter is unrepeatable.
However, beneath the hare-brained facade lies a razor-sharp, ruthlessly ambitious and highly electable politician. His record as shadow higher education minister warrants close examination. He abandoned the Tories’ opposition to the expansion of higher education and established himself as a meritocrat, genuinely concerned that the pipeline of talent into the sector was excluding those from poorer backgrounds. He advocated relaxing student number controls and he distanced himself from the opportunistic policies of his predecessors by supporting graduate contributions to the cost of their tuition. He promoted “hierarchies of excellence” among institutions, and argued that government should “get the funding right and then stand back and let students and institutions do the rest”.
In effect, he laid the groundwork for a policy platform that has continued long after he left the post.
However, although the importance of higher education to the future of the UK’s economy and society is widely understood by our current Conservative-led government, this consensus is yet to be reflected in some key areas of policy. The Home Office’s stance on immigration, for instance, has hampered the global reach of universities by making the visa system more expensive and complex and cutting opportunities for global graduates to take advantage of career opportunities in the UK.
As London mayor, Boris has advocated removing international students from the migration cap, which could pave the way towards the relaxation of their visa requirements. It’s not hard to see why he has taken this position: London is a global centre for higher education, and overseas students make a significant contribution to the city’s economy. Perhaps, too, his stance reflects the heavyweight university lobby’s lingering influence on him. Or it could be that mischievous Boris knows that he is likely to face the architect of immigration policy, home secretary Theresa May, in any post-election Conservative leadership contest. Either way, the mayor has been a powerful ally on the right in an area of great concern to the UK higher education sector.
But in recent weeks Boris has burnished his anti-European Union credentials, contemplating a British exit, which should worry the higher education sector as much as it does the City of London. The concern must be that as he re-enters Westminster, the liberalism that marked his time as shadow higher education minister and saw him twice elected mayor of what many political analysts consider a “Labour city” vanishes as, in pursuit of the keys to No 10, he courts the unreconstructed grassroots of a shrinking Conservative Party. Don’t be surprised if his position on student immigration, for instance, suddenly gets a whole lot tougher.
Building alliances on the political right should be a key plank of the sector’s lobbying strategy in the build-up to next year’s general election - and, whatever the outcome, Boris is likely to emerge as an even more prominent and powerful force in Conservative politics. But while Mayor Boris might have been a powerful ally, Boris Johnson MP may fail to be the great right hope that the sector needs.