In 2010, Nick Hillman stood as Conservative candidate for Cambridge, and was defeated by Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert – whose triumph owed much to his party’s manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees. After the election, Hillman became special adviser to university minister David Willetts, helping to deliver exactly the opposite policy: a substantial rise in tuition fees.
“I admit to a certain amount of initial Schadenfreude,” Hillman confesses. “I lost in Cambridge on the basis of students voting for a policy that even the Liberal Democrat leadership knew was undeliverable.” However, in government he had to get the coalition parties working together. “If we hadn’t been able to get the policy through, there would have been a major crisis in higher education funding,” he says.
Hillman was asked for a list of university chancellors who supported the measures. Many wished to caveat their support, but Hillman says the target was achieved because most realised that there were few other financially-viable options on the table. “The prime minister cited the survey at the dispatch box, and we did have a list to back that up,” he recalls.
The weeks running up to the vote were excruciating, as the Liberal Democrats’ U-turn put them under increasing public and press pressure. “We realised that if we directly talked to Lib Dem MPs then it could be counter-productive, so we just had to let them get on with it,” he says. After the legislation squeaked through the Commons, the policy’s architects applied the same approach to the Lords – which, Hillman says, is also very resistant to lobbying.
Reforms were hampered by a lack of institutional memory in the civil service, Hillman says: “A few years before, the previous government had gone through a similar process when it introduced fees, but there were hardly any officials or documents who remembered it. I had to refer to the original standing orders to work out the procedure for raising the fees.”
Despite the turbulent political fallout for the Liberal Democrats, Hillman says that the experience actually helped build coalition relations: “Particularly after the [student] riots, where some of my friends at Conservative HQ could have been hurt, it made me and others realise that we were in a serious cross-party endeavour and that we would all rise or fall together.”
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