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Mike Baker over at the BBC is reporting today that senior Conservatives are rejecting Vince Cables proposal for a Graduate Tax.

Thats both right and wrong. Right because there is no reason for Conservatives to support a Graduate Tax (as I pointed out here and here). Wrong because it turns out to be a massive over-simplification to say that Cable has in fact proposed a Graduate Tax.

In his big speech on higher education last week, Cable never uttered the phrase “Graduate Tax”. The key part of the speech comes in the midst of a horribly convoluted passage and reads:

“I am interested in looking at the feasibility of changing the system of financing student tuition so that the repayment mechanism is variable graduate contributions tied to earnings”.

Given the confused language around here in the speech, I suspect that most readers (like me) have been content to accept the speechs advance billing and to read this as support for a Graduate Tax. How wrong can you be.

Today Ive been told that Cables Department for Business Innovation and Skills has been giving universities very precise briefings on the meaning of the word “variable” in this passage. “Variable” we are told could mean that the amount paid by the graduate varies according to their income (as in a Graduate Tax). But it could also mean that it varies according to the university the student studied at, or indeed the subject they studied. Or, presumably, their favourite colour.

The point is that a “variable graduate contribution” with one or all of these meanings covers pretty much every option on the table for John Brownes review of student fees – including tweaks to student loans that wont require primary legislation.

So what this adds up to is this. Cable writes a speech that carefully avoids explicit backing for a Graduate Tax. He then gets his department to spin the speech in advance as backing for a “progressive” Graduate Tax. He then basks in the glow of being once again a progressive champion. Later, he gets his officials to explain to the universities that his speech means no such thing. In this way, like the nimble dancer he is, Cable has managed to persuade most of the world he is supporting a Graduate Tax while in fact rejecting the option to actually nail his colours to the mast.

When it comes to media management, I salute you; Vince Cable, you make Peter Mandelson look like Bambi.