The Week

13th May 2011 at 01:00

When the smoking ban became law a few years ago, journalists were robbed of one of their favourite cliches about unions - the "smoke-filled room". While "firebrand", "militant" and "hard-left" remain at hand, there can be no doubting the adjectival vacuum when it comes to reports of trade union negotiations. So, how to describe the meetings of public sector general secretaries taking place at Congress House this week as strikes over the dismantling of pensions become ever more likely? "High-level"? "Urgent"? "United"? They will all do, but "angry" perhaps best covers it.

Talking of anger, this week David Willetts, the supposedly two-brained universities minister, managed to generate a huge shouting match. Mr Willetts is a fascinating politician. Often characterised as intellectual, thoughtful, liberal and popular, his ability to get himself in a pickle is second to none. Remember it was he who David Cameron hung out to dry early in his leadership after the then education spokesman re-announced his leader's policy of "no more grammar schools". The right-wing backlash to this "non-news" was enough to put his front-bench career back at the starting line. Now in Government, Mr Willetts somehow contrived to enrage just about everyone on Tuesday by suggesting that the very wealthy ought to be able to ease their way into their university of choice by agreeing to pay a new category of super-tuition fees up front. Quite how this "blue-sky thinking" was ever allowed to see the light of day is anyone's guess. You wouldn't need to be a political heavyweight to predict that it wasn't going to go down very well.

Also wading into the increasingly toxic university admissions debate was Sir Michael "Clint Eastwood" Wilshaw. Speaking at an educational conference on Tuesday, Michael Gove's favourite superhead explained how admitting bright kids with lower A-level predictions because they were from comprehensives was a mistake. Such pupils, he explained, felt this was patronising because they wanted to achieve on a "level playing field". Put that in your social mobility pipe and smoke it.

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