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Simon Hughes and Michael Heseltine – two men selling policies the Coalition doesn’t have

The Guardian today splashes Simon Hughes across its front cover in his new role as an ‘advocate’ for poor students access to university. The Times splashes with Michael Heseltines appointment as the governments new ‘growth czar’. The two appointments demonstrate both the strengths and weaknesses of the Coalition.

Simon_hughes_mp_liverpoolLord_Heseltine2 On the one hand, the appointments shore up the two areas of greatest weakness in the Coalition. On access, Hughes unpaid appointment for six months is clearly a recognition that the Coalitions problems over fees are not over and that the build up to the coming white paper on higher education has the potential to inflict yet more damage – particularly on the Lib Dems. On growth, Heseltines new job is an acknowledgement that the dribbles of policy seen so far have been hopelessly inadequate to justify David Camerons claim that this will be “the most pro-growth government ever”.

The appointments install effective communicators to sell the Coalitions benefits, and theyve got off to a great start, placing the stories of their appointment in the right papers. In other words, the Coalition remains alert to political threats, dynamic in presenting its case and effective in managing the media throughout the 24 hour cycle – things Gordon Brown failed at.

On the other hand, neither appointment does anything to tackle the substantive issues. Its tempting to say they have both been appointed merely to sell the Coalitions policies. Thats true up to a point – both have remits that seem to explicitly exclude them from making policy. But to put it like that would be to obscure the deeper issue – that in both cases the Coalition doesnt actually have a policy to sell.

On access, there are two key questions. How many universities will be allowed to charge over £6,000 a year for their courses? And what conditions, in terms of improving access for poor students, will be imposed on those that do? On both issues there is no straight answer from the Coalition. The drafting of the HE white paper will now spark a dogfight between the Treasury (keen to save money), universities (ditto, but also keen to be allowed to charge £9,000), Conservatives (seeking a market), the Russell Group (determined to avoid targets such as “more than one black student”) and Lib Dems (keen to have guarantees of success – eg targets). Nobody knows what will emerge.

On growth, the white paper promised for the autumn has already been put off two, if not three, times. The two principal Cabinet ministers involved, Vince Cable and George Osborne, clearly have opposing views on the topic. And though the Budget on 23 March has already been sold as a budget “for growth”, the Coalition does not have an agreed economic philosophy for generating that growth. There could hardly be a bigger test of the Coalition or one more likely to trigger Cable into launching his “nuclear weapons” if he fails to get his way.

Meanwhile, the Coalition itself is under increasing strain from both left-wing Lib Dems and – now – right-wing Conservatives. Both are alarmed by the possibility of an electoral pact in 2015 between Cameron and Nick Clegg that could make their current exclusion from power permanent – fears that were fanned by the duos joint press conference before Christmas where both failed to rule out the possibility.

Until now, the Conservative Right has been soothed by the huge victories being won by Osborne in cutting back the welfare state. But this is what makes the March Budget so perilous. If Osborne is seen to capitulate to Cables over economic policy, the noises being made by “Mainstream” Conservatives may turn into open warfare. Yet if Cable doesnt get his way, he may lead the left of the Lib Dems (most of the party) out of the Coalition. This is the substance of the next three months – and remains untouched by the appointments of Hughes and Heseltine.

For now, Cameron and Clegg prefer to gloss over in public the existential threat to the Coalition, and indeed the integrity of their own parties, posed by the tension between the Lib Dem left and the Conservative right on issues such as tuition fees and economic growth. If they can keep it that way until next Christmas, they will have had a good 2011.