A few years ago you were calling for the reformation of the National Liberals as a party to defend the coalition’s record. Now we have a Tory majority. What do you think has changed?
When I suggested this, it was not so much to defend the coalition. It was more that I was concerned that the Conservative party would find it hard to win over the votes of liberal people, perhaps particularly younger people.As a Conservative party on its own, it needed, in a sense, a diffusion brand. It needed a brand that was a bit less offputting perhaps to some of these people but nevertheless that was still explicitly allied with the Conservative party.I think the conclusion that I came to regarding the election result is that I’d been unnecessarily pessimistic – so in a sense what I was proposing … has shown itself to be unnecessary.
You said yourself that the worst of all possible worlds would be a Tory majority of 10. The Conservative majority is 12 now. Do you think David Cameron has got enough leeway with 12 people to steer through what he needs to?
I’m sure there will be stresses and strains over the course of a five-year parliament, but the other thing that you find is that having a very small majority is a sort of innate discipline.
This is the first majority Conservative government for a very very long time so there’s a pretty strong reluctance on the part of colleagues … to undermine that. Now we are in the rosy early days. I’m sure that in a couple of years it may be a bit more stressful.
You’ve said the coalition was a good thing but also that it hadn’t benefited you as much as you’d hoped. Do you think that it was generally a success?
I think that it was a very necessary thing and I am certainly proud of a lot of what it achieved, and given the maths that the electorate had delivered, I think it was essential for the stability and good government of the country.
I do think it was much less positive for us than I had thought. What tended to happen was that the Liberals would try and claim responsibility for anything vaguely progressive and liberal and then blaming us for anything that was a bit tough.
You said that the Conservative party fell into a trap of letting itself be portrayed as extremist at the time.
I’m not sure if we had much choice in the matter having gone into a coalition … I do think that it meant we had to bend over backwards to try and persuade people that we weren’t. Now I think it is a lot more straightforward because ultimately everything we do as a government will be us.
The scrapping of maintenance grants has caused a bit of outrage among students. As someone who looks at skills and higher education, what was your reaction to the changes?
It’s very difficult generally. The reality is that we have a lot of cuts to public spending that are required to get the deficit down and I can see why, if I was 17, I would be facing the prospect of going to university with some trepidation because of the level of borrowing that would be required.On the other hand, actually, the more you look into it, it’s not like normal borrowing. You pay it back only if you earn more than a certain amount. You only pay it back at a certain rate over time. If you haven’t paid it back after 30 years, it gets written off. The bailiffs are never going to come round and take your TV.
No, but obviously there are students who are looking at this and thinking: “There’s already tuition fees and I’m not going to get a maintenance grant. It’s going to be another loan on top of that.” It’s quite daunting.
I think it is potentially daunting. What was interesting about the introduction of tuition fees – because in truth this is the same argument that was made about the £9,000 tuition fees – is that everyone was saying that we are going to see a huge fall in the number of people going to university, especially people from poorer families. Ultimately, the people concerned worked out that the benefit of getting a degree was greater than the risk.
Just under half of people go to university. That means that half aren’t going to university. Is it really right that they’re paying for an experience that will ultimately benefit the individual more than themselves?I wouldn’t want to pretend that it is a decision that we relish … and I wouldn’t want to pretend that it’s not something that is potentially daunting to young people. I would simply say to them that so long as you’ve got the grades and you’ve got the application and you’re doing a course that isn’t a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course, a degree is going to make you much more than you end up having to borrow.
You spend a fair amount of time on social media. Do you think that it’s important for politicians to engage in social media?
I think I have come to a slightly different view over the last year and a bit. Put it this way: you’re trying to communicate with actual people who are elected representatives. That’s important.I think Twitter is a snare and delusion. What we have discovered during this election is that the only people on Twitter are opinionated people who already know what they think. You’re not getting outside, as it were, of the bubble. You’re communicating to [it].I must say I have tweeted a lot less since the election and I’ll probably keep going in a very sporadic way. I don’t think it is a way to communicate with unengaged voters. Facebook is probably an exception.