What a knotty problem David Willetts has created for himself today. Speaking to the
Guardian this morning, he floated an idea to help the universities make a bit of cash: they
could, he suggested, sell extra places to students who were prepared to pay exaggerated fees up front. This isn’t yet government policy, and the students needn’t do the paying themselves (they
could be sponsored by charities or employers, for instance), but the Guardian pounced nevertheless. "Extra places at university for rich students," blared its front page headline. Not a
good look for the coalition, at a time when access to university is such a general concern. Not a good look for David Willetts, who might have avoided the pitfall before him.
The coalition has since attempted an Alexandrian solution: cut the knot straight down the middle, by pointing out that this isn’t government
policy — and isn’t likely ever to be. "There is no question of wealthy students being able to buy a place at university," is how Willetts put it in a statement this afternoon. But
the confusion about what-was and what-wasn’t had already set in, and opened the way for Labour’s John Denham. "The most humiliating and fastest U-turn in the history of this government,"
is how he caricatured it in the Commons earlier. Which isn’t strictly true — because this isn’t a change in government policy — but such is the rough and tumble of Westminster politics.
The whole affair reminds me of when Labour were struggling to fund their social care plans last year. One of the options they mooted was the infamous death tax, but it was only ever that: one
option, among others. Yet the Tories hammered them for it anyway, even going so far as to produce an attack poster which read, "Now Gordon wants £20,000 when you
die". The lesson for members of government is to avoid giving the Opposition room to attack policies that aren’t. They will make quite enough mischief with those that are.