The Sketch: Willetts' policy debacle managed to make even the Lib Dems look good

  • @SimonSketch

"Right – increasing Lib Dem self esteem. Proposal one. Let's get some ministerial monkey to say he's writing a White Paper for the return of apprenticeships for separating litter, or getting the homeless to build their own hovels on landfill sites. Give him a day of media. Then let Nick Clegg demand the policy gets pulled – result!"

"Hovels on landfill sites? Who'd front that?"

"Get Willetts. Show him some equations which prove it increases social mobility; make sure the equations have got algebra."

"Willetts. Right. He doesn't matter. But hovels on landfill? The idea needs to be realistic."

"How about letting rich people buy places at Oxbridge for their children?"

"More realistic, I said, idiot!"

"No, that is more realistic, I've got algebra to show it will ramp up university revenues and increase the number of places."

"Willetts will never fall for it."

"Of course he will. The logic makes use of seven dimensions – he'll see he's the only one clever enough to understand it."

And so it was that David Willetts walked alone into the chamber with his algebraic plan on the back of an envelope. All his colleagues had ratted off. No one else from his department had come, certainly not his boss Vince Cable (the man who gave us £9,000-a-year tuition fees). A government whip sat by the door with his hand over his lower face. Simon Hughes (the Coalition's Fair Access Adviser) hardly moved a muscle.

John Denham enjoyed his moment just as he had the tuition fees debate. He laughed, he chuckled, he pumped his shoulders up and down, he was having a lovely time.

Would public schools be able to have closed scholarships? Would family trusts count as charities to buy places for family members? Wasn't this an Easyjet practice – buying your way to the front of a queue? Wouldn't this be a way of creating (said an unhelpful Tory MP) a fully functioning market?

But Labour wasn't angry or even indignant: they were delighted. That ass Chris Ruane hee-hawed his way underneath the exchanges. And Denham was full of scornful, point-scoring assertions which failed to add up to an argument.

But it's still true, as Liz Truss pointed out, that this country has less than half the numbers of poor people at university than the US.

But the most satisfying question had nothing to do with this, and everything to do with the politics of the moment: did Willetts's boss approve of this policy? Vince absolutely loves this policy. It's going to make him look nuclear.