Lord Adonis, former Labour transport secretary and education ministerLouis Ashworth

You could be forgiven for not having heard of Andrew Adonis a year ago. The politician and member of the House of Lords, whose biggest job to date has been Secretary of State for Transport in the government of Gordon Brown, made headlines in December when he resigned from his role as the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission in protest at the May government’s approach to Brexit, which he called “a dangerous populist and nationalist spasm”.

Since then, he has maintained a high profile in the political world mainly through his use of Twitter, to which he takes extremely frequently to pursue issues important to him. The theme of his speech to Cambridge Universities Labour Club on a rainy night last Thursday was on one such issue: a second referendum on Brexit, or what he likes to call “the first referendum on the withdrawal agreement”: essentially, a chance to say we do not want to leave the EU after all. I cannot help but wonder whether he is actually serious about the possibility of it happening.

“It’s particularly important that students mobilise, because they’re the future”

“I think there’s a good chance. It’s only going to happen if there’s mass mobilisation”, Adonis tells me. He emphasises how important the younger generation is to this quest. “It’s particularly important that students mobilise, because they’re the future, and this is very much an argument about the future than the past. Also students, I fondly think, tend to be more susceptible to facts and less susceptible to populism.”

For a second referendum to happen, the House of Commons must approve it, meaning every Labour MP and a good few Tories would have to vote for one. Many of those Labour MPs are in heavy ‘leave’ constituencies; why would they possibly want to vote for a second referendum?

“They can let their constituents make up their own minds. It’s the people who’ll decide if there’s a referendum, not the House of Commons, and I think that makes it much easier for MPs who have got substantial leave votes in their constituencies to vote for it.”

After that not wholly convincing answer I suggest that perhaps people who chose in June 2016 for Britain to leave the EU might not be inclined to listen to a Blairite member of the House of Lords on this issue, given the undercurrent of anti-elite sentiment that spurred the vote. Why does Adonis think they will?

“The electorate in the next referendum will be very different from the last one. There’ll be a lot of turnover in the electorate, a lot more young people will be on the voting role than last time, so it’s not a static debate that we’re having, it’s gonna be a very different debate from two years ago.”

“We need policies that will actually improve education, housing, jobs and the NHS, not by scapegoating foreigners and Europe”

On the issue of voters who felt betrayed, Adonis is more understanding than the Daily Mail has caricatured him as being. “There’s no doubt at all that in a large part of Britain, [voters] blamed the elites for not having given them a good enough deal and they were absolutely right to do that, and we need a better deal. We need a better deal on housing, education, health, jobs. But the argument which we need to make is that that better deal needs to come from policies that will actually improve education, housing, jobs and the NHS, not by scapegoating foreigners and Europe.”

Is he confident, however, that the current frontbench of his Labour Party could deliver the kind of things he wants? Given the differences between him and Jeremy Corbyn on this matter, Adonis is perhaps unwisely optimistic, but qualifies his answer with a big ‘if’. “I’m absolutely confident that if he moves to a pro-European position he can win that argument with the country because he’s absolutely brilliant at campaigning.”

Another of Adonis’s current favourite topics, as shown by his Twitter feed, is the high pay rate of university heads in Britain. He is often named, however, as the brains behind the introduction of university tuition fees, given that he was Tony Blair’s head of policy at the time. Would he not say that the high salaries within universities are the natural result of charging fees in the first place?

“There’s absolutely no reason why fees should have led to an explosion in the salaries of administrators in universities. There is a connection between the two, you’re absolutely right to say. There was more money in the pot, but if universities were properly governed the more money in the pot should have gone back to students and lecturers and not in high pay for university administrators. That was a result of poor governance.” Boards of governors, he says, “are too much under the thumb of the vice-chancellors, and that’s what’s led to the high salaries.”

“I don’t think the University of Cambridge should be blackmailed by somebody from Canada”

One of the worst instances, he suggests, is our university, here in Cambridge. “There’s absolutely no reason why the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge should be paid more than £200,000 a year. That’s a very good public service salary.” Adonis does not hesitate in calling out Stephen Toope, the Cambridge vice-chancellor, who took up his post in October 2017 on a salary of £365,000, over £15,000 more than his predecessor.

“If the present guy won’t do it – I think he’s Canadian isn’t he, he’s come because somehow he was going to be paid more than for a Canadian university – I can assure you there are plenty of very, very good people who come out of the British university system who would give their right arm to be vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. So I don’t think the University of Cambridge should be blackmailed by somebody from Canada, which after all, let’s be clear, doesn’t have any universities which are as great as the University of Cambridge, into being paid an obscenely high salary.”

“If he tells you that the only reason why he came to be vice-chancellor of Cambridge is because they’d be paying him more than £300,000 a year, my answer is he should go back to Canada and we’ll get somebody who isn’t just motivated by greed to do the job.”

Stephen Toope took up the role as Cambridge's vice-chancellor in October 2017The University of Cambridge

Is this not the kind of problem that the Office for Students – the universities regulator founded under universities minister Jo Johnson – should be dealing with? Adonis is highly critical. “Well, the way it’s behaving, what does it do? It was proposing to appoint Toby Young to its board, who wanted to start a culture war with universities, and it’s refused to engage seriously in either the issue of higher student fees or the issues of vice-chancellors’ pay.”

Why, then, is it waging such a war when there are much more important problems to be dealt with? “The right wing in politics always prefers to have a culture war than an argument about economics, because the right in politics stands by and large for the rich, and defending the rich. But it’s very hard in a democracy to defend the rich blatantly, so much better to be arguing about free speech on campus, about abortion, about human rights, about LGBTQ-type issues.”

The threat to free speech, Adonis says, is “a complete non-issue which they’re trying to create into an issue, in order to avoid as displacement activity to avoid talking about £9,250 fees, and –” he cannot help a final swing at Toope and his ilk – “vice-chancellors being paid more than £300,000 a year.”


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