Mr Howard's first mistake as leader: unprincipled opposition on top-up fees

The Conservative policy is likely to be seen as cynical and opportunist, when these are the adjectives the Tories intend to hurl at Labour

When Michael Howard announced his candidature as Tory leader at the end of October he promised, rather as Tony Blair had done from the comfort of Opposition, "a new kind of politics, for people today view conventional politics with contempt". Warming to his theme, he added: "We won't hesitate to give credit to the Government when it gets things right. We won't oppose for Opposition's sake. People want better than that."

Fashion matters in politics; and it's a tribute to the undoubted seriousness of Howard as a politician that he has already begun to make that potent if mystical force work for him. Cometh the hour, it is widely and reasonably argued, cometh the man. At the very moment when the Government is showing its greatest vulnerability, Howard steps forward to reunite and reinvigorate an Opposition which has for too long missed its opportunities. Almost as one, commentators, this one very much included, have welcomed the arrival of a man clearly capable of fulfilling the democratic duties of an Opposition in what has for too long seemed like a one-party state.

Whether he intends to fulfil that duty in terms compatible with those pious sentiments about a "new kind of politics" is more open to question. Top-up fees is an interesting case in point. For now the focus is rightly on the frenetic negotiations conducted by ministers with rebellious Labour backbenchers in an attempt to avert a parliamentary defeat which could threaten the Prime Minister's very survival. It's taken for granted that whatever its private views on the substance of the proposal, no Opposition could do other than maximise the chances of this glittering prize falling into its lap. At any price.

Or would have been had it not been for a striking entry into the debate by Michael Portillo at the weekend. He suggested that the Conservative policy - which, it's worth remembering, is not only to oppose top-up fees but end all existing tuition fees - sits uneasily with Howard's consistent theme that the state can't do everything. Portillo pointed out that it's likely to be seen as cynical and opportunist when those are just the adjectives the Tories intend to hurl at Labour at the next election. And that it will undermine the theme of citizen's responsibility, which as Portillo added "is a pity because it's a good one".

Whatever the see-saws of Portillo's long ideological journey, he is still a sound money man, as Howard is. He is rightly puzzled, therefore, how transferring total responsibility for higher education back to the state is compatible with Howard's aim, restated several times in his own article on Sunday, of lowering taxes.

Portillo could have gone a good deal further, of course. He could have pointed out that it was the Cabinet of which he and Howard were both members that set up the inquiry under Ron Dearing which paved the way for the fees the Tories say they will now abolish. That it did so because it saw - quite rightly - that a crisis in higher education funding was coming down the track. That although the Dearing report did not also commit itself to top-up fees, the now Lord Dearing has subsequently - in an interview with my colleague Richard Garner - come out in favour of the principle of such fees.

Had he wanted to be outright disloyal rather than just a candid friend, Portillo could also have underscored the doubtful basis of Howard's suggestion in a BBC interview on Saturday that he might not have been able to go to Cambridge had Labour's policy then been in place. As a bright grammar school boy with excellent A-levels, Howard almost certainly would have got to a top university: even after the imposition of up-front tuition fees, nine out of ten pupils who get the requisite A-levels go on to higher education whatever their social economic group.

And finally he could have pointed out that even Labour shrank from Opposition for Opposition's sake over higher education when it backed the Dearing inquiry. We shouldn't get misty-eyed about this. Having agreed to keep spending down in its first two years in office, Labour would have been in deep trouble - from the Tories - if it adopted the policy the Tories are pursuing now. But then everyone expected Labour to win, obliging it to make sense of its fiscal plans. Are the Tories relieved of such an obligation because no one expects them to win?

Not really. Instead, there are already grounds for expecting that the Tories will simply reverse their policy once the parliamentary excitements of the Government's Bill is out of the way. Senior shadow ministers have been very careful not to commit themselves on whether they would repeal the Government's legislation. As well they might be.

The Government did not at the outset handle top-up fees well. It did not adequately prepare the ground. Those rebelling include the sacked, the fearful (for their own seats), those who would prefer Gordon Brown as leader, the disillusioned, and those who have legitimate grievances on all sorts of other matters against Blair. But they also include those with deep anxieties that a reform as radical as this needs to be accompanied by definite moves to protect and expand the access of lower income groups to university.

When the MP Peter Bradley worries that the University of Wolverhampton may be penalised by having to dish out bursaries to a much higher proportion of its students, because they are low income, than Oxford and Cambridge which have only a minority of such students, he worries about something real. When Lord Dearing says it is odd that the Government is paying a £1,500 maintenance grant to those who stay on at school but only a £1,000 maintenance grant to those at university, he has a real point. As do critics who say that not every worthwhile course leads to the earnings benefits the Prime Minister continually emphasises.

Which is why Charles Clarke is considering sensible concessions in response - from cut-off points for repayments to treating the fee exemptions for the poorer students as up-front payments. Nor need these negate the principle of the Bill - the second line of attack which will be levelled at the Government's measure. It was after all the Tory government that cushioned its switch from student grants to loans by first merely freezing grants. That's the way modern politics absorbs radical reform, as the Government should perhaps have remembered rather earlier than it did.

It's not too late. In other words, a great deal remains uncertain, including whether Brown will in the end swallow his deep doubts about the policy to strain every sinew to persuade his allies to pull back from the brink of a comprehensive government defeat for which he could yet take some of the blame. It's hardly surprising that Howard is prepared to exploit these volatile circumstances for party ends. But if the Bill is passed, he will pay a price. Which was the point of Portillo's message. Whatever else Howard's approach to top-up fees is, it isn't (in any sense of the word) "a new kind of politics".