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The BBC's Carolyn Quinn
"The string of ministerial broadsides is testing the patience of the teaching profession"
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Friday, 2 June, 2000, 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK
Portillo joins elitist row

Portillo accuses the government of "panic and complacency"
The Conservatives have hit back at the government and the row over so-called elitism at Britain's universities.

It follows more comments from the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who on a visit to Gateshead, said northern universities had as much of a responsibility to recruit students from less well-off areas as colleges in the south.

But speaking in Basildon on Friday night, the Shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo, accused the government of sullying the reputation of world-class universities.

They may think this is clever, populist politics

Michael Portillo
The Tory minister also accused the government of engaging in "playground politics" and reacting to recent inroads made by the Conservatives on crime, asylum seekers and European policy.

"Only panic can explain their decision last week to retreat into the envy ridden class politics of a by-gone age, using the case of an individual schoolgirl to score political points and sully the reputation of world class British universities," said Mr Portillo.

He was referring to the Chancellor Gordon Brown's recent condemnation of Oxford's failure to admit Laura Spence, an 18-year-old state school student who was then welcomed to America's Harvard University.

Laura Spence
Laura Spence: Heading for Harvard
Ministers such as Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Baroness Jay, Labour's leader in the House of Lords, have all contributed to the heated debate.

"They may think this is clever, populist politics," Mr Portillo added.

"I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary have engaged in actions totally unbecoming of their offices, and should know better."

Many pundits think the anti-elitism crusade, which targets Labour's working-class heartlands, is a sure sign election season is approaching.

Prime Minister Tony Blair must call an election by May 2002 but he is widely expected to do so up to a year early.

'Relaunching itself'

Mr Portillo said that the British electorate would not be convinced by the extra cash promised by Labour in its Comprehensive Spending Review due to be announced next month.

The government is promising to plough over £40bn into areas such as health, education and transport.

Mr Portillo said that the government was using the review to "relaunch itself", and accused them of reacting to recent setbacks with "a peculiar mixture of panic and complacency".

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See also:

02 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Prescott re-ignites universities row
31 May 00 | Education
Hague stokes elitism row
26 May 00 | UK Politics
Labour's 'class war' over Oxbridge
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