Toby Green talks to the newly appointed shadow Higher Education Minister about his turbulent political career and his plans for the future
Five minutes into our interview, and already Boris is into his stride. “I’ll tell you the difference between our lot and your lot. When I was at University we were very sharp elbowed. We were all little Thatcherites and there was a real sense that we had to get out there and kick butt. I think the generation of today is generally nicer than we were, they seem better balanced and more passionate about things. There was something quite hustling about us and we were very much encouraged that we had to go out there and kill. Get on and kick ass.”
Boris Johnson, MP for Henley-on-Thames area and now shadow Higher Education minister in David Cameron’s new look cabinet, has always been the subject for conflicting views. On one hand he is seen as one of the greatest assets of the Conservative party, a gifted public speaker and politician who has been earmarked by many as an eventual leader of the party. He enjoyed a meteoric rise in his career as a journalist, named Political Commentator of the Year in 1998 and becoming editor of The Spectator at 35, before switching to politics. On the other side he has been labelled the nation’s ‘favourite fogey’ and in November 2004 was a casualty at the hands of the tabloids when he was dismissed from the Tory front bench and his position as Vice-Chair of the party, after lying about allegations that he had a four year affair with Petronella Wyatt, a journalist at the Spectator.
The first impressions seem to confirm the second view: coming into his office I find him on the phone, looking perturbed. A high profile policy clash, perhaps, in the Tory’s new team? Or perhaps another media appearance offer, to add to his already bulging CV? In fact it is an automated voice, telling the politician he has only 8p left on his pay-as-you-go phone.
He quickly gets over this setback as he has done many times before, and settles down to answer the inevitable question of why the Conservatives have performed a U-turn over their top-up fees policy. “Let me first say I was never one of those Tory politicians that thought our opposition to top up fees was very sensible. In the 1960’s about 4% went to university, now the figure is about 43%, which means there are currently 2.3 million students.” Surprisingly for a politician, he comes across as incredibly genuine about the issue, someone who obviously enjoyed their time as a student.
“Yes, I had a great time. Back then we were much luckier because of the financial situation. Higher education was only available to a small percentage of the population so spending by government per student was much greater, plus we got a big grant.” He reels off statistics with impressive precision, a surprise perhaps for those that have only seen Boris Johnson in his entertaining but shambolic position as Have I Got News For You chair and the various tabloid scandals that ended his first era in the Conservative cabinet. “The amount per head paid by the government was about 8000 quid per head in the big universities, whereas now all universities receive about 4,900 per head. The sheer success of higher education has created a problem that can only be solved by giving the Universities the ability to charge what they like to those that can afford it.”
I ask him whether he had always had lofty political aspirations. “While at Oxford I got myself very involved in the politics side, not in party politics but in all the debating and electioneering. I was a Tory as I always have been, never really seen the point of Socialism, but I wasn’t part of any Tory machine and I don’t think the Conservatives there voted for me.” He looks rather wistful at this recollection, but gathers himself when asked about what he was debating about.
“While I was president of the Union (highly prestigious debating society at Oxford) Regan bombed Libya, and that was huge. Leading up to that you had the whole fear of whether Ronnie Regan was going to blow up the world, we were asking whether we were all going to get blown up by this mad Texan warmonger?” (He gets confused, and temporarily loses his train of thought) “Although he wasn’t Texan, he was Californian, that was the other guy…” Despite the temporary brain freeze, he rallies himself together and pulls out the commanding voice of a seasoned debater that often fails to come across through his TV appearances.
“This was the height of Thatcherian imperium: she had just won for the second time, which was the Falklands election I believe, and the support for her was tremendous. It was a very interesting time and it was still really the cold war. The female students used to go off to Brize Norton in dungarees where the American planes were flying in and campaign there.”
As he pauses to answer his ringing phone, he calls the girl on the other end by the wrong name, but recovers with great charm. He apologises for his rudeness, but keeps straight on topic. “Music is an obvious contrast: in the Thatcher era you had rock stars like Sid Vicious and The Clash and the lyrics were all about riot, rebellion, throwing TVs out the window and vomiting over your girlfriend before slitting your wrists. Nowadays it’s all James Blunt and (he attempts a nasal falsetto) ‘you’re beautiful’. It’s all sitting around in a beanie hat and having a cup of coffee and talking about your feelings. But who’s to say that is wrong? I guess that’s progress, isn’t it?”
“But nowadays there are difference issues, like the environment and social justice and all sorts of things that matter deeply to students. But while I was an undergraduate and at school we were always looking down the great gun barrel of nuclear war, and we were always living with the possibility of a nuclear bomb being dropped, and I think that’s gone. That very oppressive threat doesn’t exist anymore.” I suggest to him that the war in Iraq came close. “Yes, people’s feelings have been passionately engaged by that. It was a huge event, probably the biggest event of my lifetime. It was a (a wry chuckle) disaster in many ways, and I think people were right to get worked up about that.”
I move the conversation back onto the ground covered by his recent promotion to shadow spokesman of Higher Education, and ask him whether more students should be aiming to do vocational degrees. “Yes of course, but I want to get one thing straight. I’m not one of those Tories that believe everyone is doing Mickey Mouse degrees, going to University is a wonderful thing and it’s a great way to get on up.”
“I don’t like the idea that people are against that. Of course people should be doing more vocational degree because there has been an excessive drift and people will have to start moving back. Higher education makes your brain turn over in a different way, and there’s no reason why people in all walks of life shouldn’t benefit from it. I don’t want a quota, but I’m not against targeting people into it.”
Of course this has brought it’s own drawbacks. “I do think that the sheer success of it has caused a problem that can only be solved by giving the universities the freedom to charge those who can afford it, we’ve got to move to a system where those that can afford to pay will pay, and we help those who are in financial need. That’s the important thing. “
“The history of higher education in the last twenty years has been a brilliant evasion by the middle classes, by not paying for this thing that gives them a great advantage and they still stubbornly resist increases in their tax. The most equitable solution is to recognise that there is a premium deriving from people’s life at university, which is up to 30% for women and 15% for male. There’s a big benefit to you, and to society. You’ve got to look at some way of making the beneficiary of this economic advantage contribute. I’m not suggesting that the top up fee system coming in October is perfect, but you have to start somewhere.’”
First impressions of the system don’t look good, and Johnson declines to comment on NUS claims that UCAS figures set to be released in February show the first drop in University applicants for eight years, as he “wants to see the figures in detail before I comment. However if people are being deterred that would benefit from university, that’s wrong and that’s bad.” He uses the same tactics on the subject of degree reclassification in the wake of criticism that it is getting easier to achieve a high level degree, claiming “I haven’t yet formulated big ideas about it.”
We move onto his high media profile, another mixed blessing for the politician who admitted while on Have I Got News For You that he attempted to try cocaine, but ended up sneezing and blowing it everywhere. However he claims “In some ways a strong media profile is a good thing”, before adding, somewhat incredulously considering his past that “it certainly doesn’t do you any harm. Have I Got News For You is great because they pay you as well, so it’s got to be done. I would definitely go back on, but I don’t think they’re likely to ask me again!” In fact the only media appearance he seems to have misgivings about is Desert Island Discs, when I remind him that on the Radio 4 show he was quoted as saying: “My ambition silicon chip has been programmed to try to scramble up this ladder”. He looks embarrassed: “I was under heavy pressure from Sue Lawley, she was like a puck zooming at me, and I was like ‘Get the puck out of here.’” I asked the vital question; will we ever see Boris in Number 10? “I’m not going to give up, but I think it’s unlikely in the next five years, put it that way.”
Diplomatically avoided, and that is seemingly the key to Boris’ recent success: that behind his appearance as a bumbling loveable aristocrat, lies a sharp and attentive political mind that, after being burnt a few times, knows how to play the media game. Only once do I catch him flustered and unsure of what to say, when I inform him of the existence of a Boris Johnson Appreciation Society at York. He looks confused and asks me to repeat myself: “Really? That’s…. that’s hilarious”. Again, the lost look. “It’s a privilege, a great honour. I don’t deserve it, but my message to them is” he looks around, scrabbling. “My message is vote Conservative!”
Top-up fees: the views
“We have launched a campaign group to fight against tuition fee increases in the run up to a review planned for 2008. The coalition, backed by teaching unions from the schools, college and university sectors, aims to highlight the negative impact of fees on increasing admissions to Higher Education.
“UCAS figures due later this month are predicted to show the first drop in university applications in eight years despite government plans to get 50 per cent of 18-30 year olds into Higher Education by 2010”
“I am seriously disappointed by the announcement by the Conservatives. As always the Union is very much against top-up fees and it deeply concerns me that the Conservative party has taken this massive u-turn.” – Micky Armstrong
The government’s much criticsed plans for the future of higher education in England involve, for full-time undergraduates, fees of up to £3,000 a year. The poorest students are eligible for non-repayable support of up to £3,000 year.
The only major party who have remained opposed to top-up fees, they once promised to put an extra penny on tax to fund education. However the issue has not yet become high profile in the leadership race, although it is not expected to change.