Tony Blair summed up his priorities in just three words – “education, education, education” – and entrusted his flagship revolution in Britain’s schools to just one man: Andrew Adonis.
His legacy – thousands of academies, which have largely replaced failing comprehensives with some extraordinary results – has been secure since the Conservatives appropriated his policy and ran with it into government.
Despite this, one gets the impression that his political appetite has barely been whetted – from his office in Little Fielden House, he sustains Stakhanovite levels of activity. Lord Adonis – as he is now titled – is writing two books due to be published next year, running a set of lectures, which he will deliver in Oxford this term, on Prime Ministers and Europe since Thatcher, chairing the National Infrastructure Commission, and is an active member of the House of Lords – all whilst fighting against Brexit and the excessive and increasing pay of senior university staff.
Lord Adonis is eagerly awaiting his own lectures: “we have a star studded cast,” he tells me. Lord Charles Powell, Oxford’s own Chancellor Chris Patten, Labour peer Stewart Wood, and Theresa May’s former aide Nick Timothy will all review the European policy of Prime Ministers they knew and served.
PPE students who, presumably, will flock to these lectures might be in for a shock if Adonis should digress and give his thoughts on their degree.
“PPE is a degree essentially in rhetoric, not in intellectual substance,” says Adonis. “PPE produces generations of students who are very good at making arguments on the basis of very flimsy substance. It does teach you a lot about writing very glib 2000-word essays, which have an argument you could just as easily write the reverse of the next week.
“Most of the people making the worst arguments in the Brexit campaign had done PPE at Oxford.”
He himself got into Oxford to read PPE but tells me he is “immensely glad that I switched to History, because first year Economics is just reading newspapers.” Presumably, going on to write not-very-glib essays and reading much more than just newspapers, he graduated top of his year, before gaining a doctorate with a thesis on the House of Lords in the late nineteenth century, and tutoring History and Politics at Nuffield.
Oxford was an unlikely place for Adonis to end up. His mother left him when he was three, and the majority of his early years were thus spent in a children’s home. He was no Tracy Beaker, however, but a quiet, meek, well-read and well-mannered child.
His academic spark was spotted by the manager of his children’s home, Auntie Gladys, who arranged, along with his father, for Camden Council to fund a place for Adonis at Kingham Hill School, a boarding school in Witney. There, he had to learn how to survive quickly. He recalls that sport was the predominant social determinant of the day, and, being relatively unskilled in all aside cross country running, he took to managing and organising things.
On one occasion, the school seemed both uninterested and unqualified to develop an efficient timetable for transporting all students to a CCF trip. Perhaps prescient of his future career, they deferred to Adonis before he was even a teenager. He remembers methodically jotting out which pupil would take what train to what destination, and from there how they would arrive at the field, before writing individually to each student to deliver their specific instructions.
The imagined sight of this twelve-year-old boy – a future Transport Secretary – writing a detailed timetable of efficiency, is far more charming than the idea of, for instance, a prepubescent Boris Johnson telling his friends he wanted to be “world king”.
He continued to excel at school, and by sixth form, he was “practically running the school” – but still found time to prepare for Oxford’s admission test in which he did well enough to be offered a place at Keble. This proficiency for multi-tasking would come to provide him with many more opportunities in his life.
Adonis spent the summer before university working behind the counter of an unemployment office. In that summer of 1981, unemployment had tripled from one to three million. He remembers endless lines of traumatised middle-aged men – doubtful whether they would ever find another job.
At this point in the interview he deters from his usual style of answering questions: like a machine gun – one line of argument triggering the next, all being aimed precisely at supporting his overall conclusion, but at this point in our conversation something seems to have jammed in the barrel. He talks of endless queues around the block, an infinite supply of cases to be processed by hand , regularly resulting in him working until midnight.
The prolonged sense of desperation of the men in that office is a memory which has most certainly not deserted him. It is, perhaps, the first moment the gloom, misery, and importance of politics leapt off the page and confronted this bookworm face-to-face. His intimacy with economic disaster has perhaps turbo-charged what he considers is his duty to fight Brexit tooth and nail, a feeling of duty which brought a halt to his political hiatus.
On Brexit, he believes things “are now moving strongly in favour of another referendum. The one thing the two sides of the argument, in both major parties, will be able to agree on is a referendum”.
Adonis’ prediction goes like this: in the Commons, “the Conservative party will split on whether or not the deal is a good idea. In Labour, the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs will be in favour of staying in the EU, so they’ll be against the deal. Even those who are in favour of leaving won’t want to support May’s deal because it will be bad for Britain. That will include the leader Jeremy Corbyn.”
According to Adonis, Corbyn will then acquiesce to the pro-European case because he “would betray the trust of his younger supporters if he was to move into an anti-European position.” In that referendum, the outcome “is marginally in favour of staying at the moment because the deal will be so bad. If you put those probabilities together, thats how you get to just under 50% chance of Brexit being stopped.”
Yet it is not only Brexit which has Adonis enraged about our present politics. He is also waging a war against the pay of university leaders and the current level of tuition fees.
“Increasing tuition fees to £9,250 has just made them unbreakably toxic and politically unsustainable,” he tells me, predicting that as a result “tuition fees will be swept away because whoever wins the next election, Labour or Conservative, will fight the election to abolish them, because it’s far too complicated a position to fight the election on reducing them.”
Adonis’ preferred solution is for “a sharing of the cost of universities between the student and the state, fees of £9,250 is moving the entire cost and more – because most courses do not cost £9,250 to deliver, onto the student.”
He believes “Oxford has a position of moral leadership, as well as needing to do the right thing for its own students.
“Louise Richardson, the vice-chancellor, who in my view is being paid an unjustifiably large salary for being a leader, needs to show leadership, and the best leadership, in my view. What she could do is to cut fees by £1,000 a year for the next five years, and halve her own salary, and put the cut in her own salary – and that of other university managers, who are grossly overpaid in Oxford, put that all into a pot for reducing fees for students.”
Louise Richardson has labelled politicians like Adonis “tawdry” and “mendacious” for making a link between tuition fees and the rapidly rising pay of vice-chancellors, and, at first sight, the notion that halving the pay of a vice-chancellor could solve the tuition fee crisis is obviously absurd.
However, Adonis argues that those who have challenged him on this point, such as economist Danny Blanchflower, “haven’t done the maths”. At Oxford, if the total pay of the 452 individuals earning over £100k was cut by 25%, every undergraduate could have their fees cut by £1000 next year. A change which would enormously benefit every student, and affect just 3% of its staff.
He says he wants to return to government, hates opposition, and, says “if I was university minister in two years time, I would set up 50 technical universities across every city in the UK which would be outstandingly good to match the technical universities of Germany”.
Could this happen under a Corbyn administration? “No, no, no, Corbyn will not be Prime Minister. People who lead political parties who lose elections almost never win them second time round. There have been 39 elections since 1944 in Britain and the US, and in only three (Churchill, Nixon, and Heath) cases has a leader who has lost the first election and then gone on to win the second.”
In all, if Adonis continues to push his agenda with the drive and energy that has punctuated his ca-reer, perhaps the next great surprise in British politics will be his style of centrism spreading like wildfire.
Then again, as a PPE student myself, perhaps I could just as easily write another glib 2,000 words next week about how Adonis is the last surviving dinosaur hanging onto an ideology which the electorate has effectively driven into extinction.