Defector adds to the Tories' blues

21st January 2005 at 00:00
A year ago, Tony Blair stared defeat in the face, as scores of Labour backbenchers threatened to rebel over tuition fees. Last weekend, Michael Howard was forced to do the same, thanks to a single backbencher doing so.

Robert Jackson, the Wantage MP and education minister from 1987-90, defected from the Tories to Labour at the weekend, having voted with the Government in favour of top-up fees last year, while speaking against his own party's approach.

"The thing that got me going was the university fees issue," Mr Jackson told the Sunday Telegraph. So it was no surprise, as the Times reported, that Mr Jackson chose Andrew Adonis, the chief architect of tuition fees and Mr Blair's education adviser, as his intermediary when switching sides.

Mr Jackson may have been a "treacherous Mr Nobody" in Tory eyes, as the Daily Mail charitably described him, but his defection, alongside a News of the World poll suggesting his former party might even lose seats in a May election, overshadowed Tory plans to slash Whitehall budgets.

But Mr Jackson didn't prevent Mr Howard and his shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin announcing pound;5.7 billion would be lopped off the pound;30bn Department for Education and Skills budget to fund tax cuts and loan repayments, while simultaneously matching Labour's promises of increasing spending on "schools" by 13 per cent. ("Tory tax cut for every worker" - The Sun). As well as the thousands of DfES jobs already axed by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, four education quangos face the axe, too.

Amid this fighting talk, Liberal Democrat chairman Matthew Taylor told Radio 4's Today programme how his party would take pound;250 vouchers from the mouths of babes, or at least from their child trust fund investment accounts opened by their parents, to cut junior- class sizes. "There are tough choices to be made," he assured us.

Meanwhile, as the Guardian reported, a new Office for Standards in Education poll of 14 to 16-year-olds found that, while almost all teenagers recognised Mr Blair, only one in six knew who Mr Howard was and just one in 10 recognised Charles Kennedy. Whether the latter pair's new macho image will make them more recognisable - and popular - among mums and dads remains to be seen.

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