Mistakes in opposition have strengthened my resolve, particularly on student feesby George Osborne / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Tuition fees have sparked major protests—but Labour is making a short-sighted mistake in opposing them, says the Chancellor
There were plenty of low points during the 13 years the Conservatives spent in opposition. But I remember one particularly dismal moment: the day, in 2004, when I joined most of my fellow Tory MPs in voting against Labour’s introduction of top-up fees. It was meant to be a moment of victory. Tony Blair’s government was divided. The chancellor, Gordon Brown, and his circle of political advisers were deliberately encouraging dissent to further his personal ambition. And we, the opposition, were suddenly presented with the opportunity to defeat a government with a huge majority.
There was only one problem. Introducing top-up fees was the right thing to do. They increased resources for universities. They gave the third-level education sector greater freedom from Whitehall control. They gave students greater responsibility for paying for their education, instead of relying on the taxes of people earning far less than what those students would go on to earn.
We heard all this at the time. But we didn’t want to listen. And so we concocted an alternative policy no one really believed in to justify our opposition. I understand the temptation facing the Conservative leadership at the time—and I certainly don’t blame them. They felt they had lost too many times to pass up the chance to win. And I didn’t speak up at the time, or defy the whip like a few of my colleagues did. But we made the wrong choice. Tony Blair, helped by a powerful Commons speech from Alan Johnson, won the vote with a majority of just five. We lost not just the vote, but something far more important: our credibility. Far from bringing us closer to political victory, we had drifted further away.
A group of new Conservative MPs, including David Cameron and myself, came to learn an important lesson from this. We decided that the most precious political commodity is intellectual integrity. Important for a government, it is even more precious in opposition, when people have little else to judge you by. So when David became the Conservative leader, one of the first things we abandoned was our opposition to student fees. Instead of trying to defeat a divided Labour government on issues like school reform, we voted with Tony Blair against his backbenchers and emerged with the real…