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If ministers had been able to predict the fallout from their appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students (OfS), would they have pressed ahead with it? Probably not.

Having made their decision, should they reverse course and cancel the appointment, as Rob Halfon suggests in today’s Times Red Box? On balance, again, probably not.

It’s definitely true that there are plenty of other talented and ideologically sympathetic people whom the Government would do well to find a place in the system. But having put together our fortnightly Public Appointments listing for the last couple of years I know that the Tories have no shortage of positions to fill.

Likewise, in the course of a deliberately provocative journalistic career Young has made no end of controversial remarks – and the general impression of these that may filter down to the ordinary voter may be damaging.

Yet it is also important not to allow appointees to be dismissed because left-wing critics have deliberately misrepresented their arguments – as Young alleges, see below – lest there be no Conservatives left in public office. Ministers should measure him by what he wrote, not what Twitter says he wrote (which is not to say that everything he’s written gets a pass, I haven’t trawled it).

Finally, it is worth noting that the Government has already suffered the damage from this appointment. Halfon will be familiar enough with the way that social media outrage works to know that even if Young were dismissed today, the news wouldn’t travel nearly as far as the initial furore and thus would only undo a very limited amount of the damage.

That gain must be weighed against what he can bring to the role. Regardless of his previous career Young’s experience and engagement with the wider education debate is beyond reasonable dispute, and taking all the heat from his appointment but losing his expertise would be a poor trade.

If ministers do decide to cut their losses, it is vital that they do not allow the decision to validate the idea that every single one of the OfS’s fifteen board members has to come from inside the higher education sector – as Young notes in his defence: “it’s par for the course for regulatory bodies to include some people from outside the sectors they’re supposed to regulate, otherwise it would be a case of professionals marking their own work.”

This row has highlighted a broader question of whether or not colourful columnists of the right are really viable as public appointments. It may not be fair that it’s easier to reconcile radical opinions and poses with public service on the left, but Tories of all people should not allow that to blind them to the reality.

It also offers a preview of what politics might be like a short distance into the future, when even appointees without a career in journalism have a long trail of unguarded, youthful opinions across the internet for anyone to find. All parties would likely profit from the lessons offered by this prologue.

97 comments for: The row over Toby Young’s appointment offers a preview of politics in the social media age

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