If Simon Hughes says Andrew Lansley should go, his job must be secure

Nik Darlington 10.12am

One my desktop Twitter thing I have separate streams for Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. It can be quite revealing (you always know when the Labour party’s effective social media operation gets into action because its MPs start parroting the same tweets).

Last week, Labour MPs seemed happier than they’ve been for some time, perhaps even before it dawned on them that they’d been given a party leader who fires blanks. From the moment the shadow health secretary set upon Craig’s article on Wednesday morning, my Labour stream was awash with re-tweeting MPs and party hacks. I had a suspicion it might surface at PMQs. When I saw Mr Burnham sat at Edward’s right-hand side instead of the typical toad-in-arms, that suspicion was confirmed.

The Conservative stream was a curiosity. I checked often but over the course of Thursday and Friday I didn’t see a single tweet from a Tory MP in support of the health reforms or the besieged Andrew Lansley. And health minister Simon Burns cut a lonely figure as he did more telly appearances than Alexander the Meerkat.

Over the weekend, however, Cabinet colleagues took to air and screen to pledge their support for the Health Secretary - and rightly so.

Mr Lansley is not one of life’s natural communicators. But he is a brave and decent man. Moreover, having spent several years shadowing and then running the Department for Health, he knows the NHS inside out. I challenge anyone to identify an alternative candidate better qualified to take on such a complicated job at this desperate moment (and a realistic candidate: neither Alan Milburn nor Stephen Dorrell count).

Perhaps Simon Hughes has a better idea. The Lib Dem deputy leader roused himself to declare (£), with impeccable gravity, that the coalition had to “move on from this Bill”. And in consequence, said Mr Hughes, “my political judgement is that in the second half of parliament it would be better [for Mr Lansley] to move on.” How he must have agonised before bestowing us with this missive.

I said what I have to say about the Health Bill in Friday’s article. I shall not repeat it here, except to reiterate that worthwhile reforms have been mangled by poor communication, vested interests and indulgent opposition. What is worth salvaging must be salvaged, and unlike maritime convention, this is a moment when the sinking ship’s captain must survive to pick up the pieces.

The Prime Minister is doing the right, honourable and sensible thing in standing by Mr Lansley. It is one sort of humiliation to have one’s government run by hysterical newspaper headlines. To have it determined by the “political judgement” of the Member for Bermondsey & Old Southwark would be a farce.

A blow for mediocrity

Giles Marshall 4.12pm

Simon Hughes has announced that Oxbridge should stop allowing its academics to interview students.  It has taken a while for this commonsense view to come through, but at last a leading politician – no less a man than the government’s Higher Education adviser – has finally reminded us that education remains an essential tool for squashing all sense of achievement and advancement.

Hughes has gone some way in ensuring that academic criteria must not be the main basis of selection for universities, and especially not Oxbridge.  He rightly observed that using academics to interview prospective students would allow them to ‘bond’ in an intellectual way that might lead to equally deserving, non-intellectual students, being deprived of a place.

I hope he goes further.  The whole concept of ‘exams’ is inimical to those students who perform poorly when asked academic questions on a sheet of intimidating white paper.  It is certainly disadvantageous to students who have correctly preferred to prepare for their university careers via a process of alcohol consumption and television watching.  Why should the geeky readers get all of the university places?  What have they got to offer the essentially social environments of the university halls?

Once we have ditched academic interviews and exams, we could then move on to the ridiculous advantage afforded those students who own pens and books.  In an age of internet access, online gaming dynamics and powerful social media, it remains a typical and regressive example of the universities’ hidebound approach to selection that they still demand the ability to convey ideas onto paper, via nibs if possible. 

 Hughes has opened up only the most obvious of the inequalities facing would-be university applicants.  He should not rest until selection is done by a series of reality tv performances.  Only then will we get the calibre of students we deserve.

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