Coronation (headless) chicken

May should go in mid-April. But attempts to appoint a successor uncontested will only stir further chaos in the hen coop.

  • On April 12, Britain is due to move out of a short extension either into No Deal (which is unlikely) or a long extension (which is likely).  In the latter event, Theresa May should stand down on that date as Conservative leader, but stay on temporarily as Prime Minister.  This would allow the Party to hold a leadership election with both Parliamentary and membership stages, which would be impracticable before mid-April.  The new leader would then succeed May as Prime Minister in, say, mid-June.
  • If May gives such a commitment to her Cabinet on Monday, and makes it public later that day, her deal stands a better chance of being approved by the Commons this week.  But endorsement would still be far from certain.  Such a pledge might not persuade the DUP to back it.  And even if it did, the “Spartans” will hold out.  If Opposition MPs hold fast too, the agreement will still go down.  Whatever you view of the deal, this is worth bearing in mind.
  • Now suppose that May instead agrees to quit immediately.  Today’s papers are full of the names of potential successors as Prime Minister, including David Lidington, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt.  How would a handover work?  Is it suggested that May stay as Party leader until after a post-April 12 leadership election – thereby allowing a replacement, temporary Prime Minister to serve until that contest produced a new leader, presumably at some point in early-to-mid June?
  • If so, would a new Prime Minister be prepared to take office under that constraint?  Is Hunt, Gove, Lidington or anyone else really prepared to serve in office for less than twelve weeks?  If not, is it proposed that the person who might lead the Party into the next election is selected unopposed?  We name 19 potential leadership contenders in our regularly monthly Next Tory Leader survey question.  There are doubtless others.  Is it seriously suggested that all but one would be prepared to stand aside?
  • Next, Conservative MPs.  Would they, too, be able to rally round one person?  Consider the names most in the frame.  Lidington would be unacceptable to most hard Brexiteers.  Boris Johnson unacceptable to many softer ones.  Gove and Hunt would be in danger of falling between two stools.  Too pro-hard Brexit; too pro-Soft Brexit; pro-Remain; unpopular with members; unpopular with voters; too tained, too fresh – the objections to any aspirant are legion.  What is meant to bring clarity would breed confusion.
  • Next, Party members.  May was elected unopposed after Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the last contest (in effect).  Her leadership is not ending well.  Why should activists want to see her successor appointed – “crowned”, as Tory MPs like to say – rather than elected after a proper contest?  If it didn’t work out last time, why would it do so this time?  Would such an outcome even be legal under the terms of the Party’s constitution?  Above all: what difference to Brexit policy would this new leader make?
  • Next, the Palace.  Monarchs like coronations – but why should the Queen assent to this one?  She might well say to a departing May: “Now, look here.  You tell me that your Parliamentary Party will accept Mr Lidington as your successor.  But I read gather that some Tory MPs will not support him.  Why shouldn’t I send for Jeremy Corbyn instead?”  The Queen has steered clear of party political controversy for the length of her distinguished reign.  Why should she now be dumped right in the midst of one?
  • Finally, May herself.  What if she simply refuses to go? She cannot be challenged in a leadership ballot until the autumn.  Both the 1922 Committee and the whips have pointed her towards the door.  As we write, she is declining to walk towards it.  If her Cabinet unanimously advises her to quit – and we’ll believe that when we see it – she might be left with no alternative.  But until or unless that happens (or Philip May steps in), she will be hard to winkle out.
  • This site is not set on keeping May in office.  We urged change during December’s leadership challenge.  As we say, we want her to pledge to quit as Party leader, and to depart on April 12 – paving the way for a full leadership contest.  Conservative MPs have had enough of her, too.  No group or faction trusts her.  She has lost the confidence of her Cabinet and whips.  Her disastrously misconceived attack on her own MPs appears to have sealed her fate.
  • None the less, our message to them this morning is: be careful what you wish for.  A post-April 12 Prime Ministerial departure works.  A pre-April 12 one doesn’t.  The Conservative Party is like a man stuck in a swamp.  If he keeps his head, he can work his way out of it.  If he loses it, he will be sucked into the depths.  Lidington Now, Gove Now, Hunt Now, Anyone Now – to attempt anything like this is to flail and thrash about. It will only drag the Government deeper into the swamp which threatens to drown it.

The truth about Nick Boles and Grantham & Stamford’s Conservative Association

Or as close to it as a site well-disposed to both can get in this fallen world. This is the story of a marriage gone horribly wrong.

Nick Boles is a modernisation hero: brave, original, independent-minded, witty, loyal and far too good for the provincial, scheming, purple-flavoured reactionaries of Grantham and Stamford’s Conservative Association.

Nick Boles is a egomaniacal poseur: a snooty, unstable, metro outsider who first looked down his nose at, and since has terminally let down, loyal and good-hearted activists who raised money, made calls, tramped streets and knocked on doors to get him elected.

You are hearing both versions at the moment.  And since Boles isn’t short of allies and admirers in the media, probably more of the first than the second.

As a friend of both, we are barred from taking sides.  So, as friends sometimes do, let us shape-shift into the role of marriage guidance counsellor – or commentator, at least.  And say right at the start that, at the heart of this story, is neither a infiltration-led putsch nor an establishment stitch-up, but a relationship that went horribly wrong.

It’s important to understand that the Association came to this marriage scarred, as those who enter second marriages often do.  Its first spouse, Quentin Davies, had suddenly gone bonkers in late middle age, and taken it into his head to run off with Gordon Brown.  Davies was quite an establishment sort of chap, previously a diplomat and banker.  So, in his different way, is Boles – a former Kennedy Scholar and think-tank head.  At any rate, the Association went straight from the one to the other.

At first, all seems to have gone well enough.  Boles’ career at Westminster went smoothly – almost swimmingly: he didn’t quite make the Cabinet, but became a very senior Minister of State, much admired for his bold ideas on planning and apprenticeships.  But he had a way of skiing off-piste.  For example, Boles called for the reinvention of the National Liberals.  This didn’t happen – but the Conservatives won the 2015 election without them, anyway.  He backed Remain in the EU referendum and his pro-Leave friend, Michael Gove, for the Tory leadership afterwards.  At this point, the local Association seems to have found their local MP’s adventures more stimulating than alarming.

Then Boles git very seriously ill with cancer.  For a while, he was a hero all round, wrenching himself from his hospital bed in order to vote for Article 50.  But even as his health recovered, thank goodness, the relationship deteriorated.

Every serious deselection attempt we know of has a back story.  EU policy may be in front of stage; but something else usually lurks at the back, tangled up with the scenery, wires, and lighting.  Nearly always, as in this case, it is the claim that the local MP isn’t in the constituency as often as he should be.

Such roughs are almost always smoothed over.  It is a cackhanded MP who cannot grease his way back into the affections of his activists.  And a truculent Association that is not prepared to give that MP the benefit of the doubt.  We suggest neither that Boles is the first nor the Association the second, but tensions somehow rose rather than receded.  It is as though the Association, or at least much of its leadership, was set on getting shot of Boles; and as though Boles – from early on the wrangle – was set on getting shot of it, in return.

Mark Wallace, ConservativeHome’s Boles & Grantham Correspondent, put his finger on the nub of the issue in January. “If feeling towards him was warmer generally in the Association, people would say ‘oh, move on’”, one experienced activist argues, “but instead, he doesn’t have that electoral goodwill in the bank.”

At any rate, highlights from the domestic tiff include Boles opposing No Deal and Philip Sagar, the Association’s Chairman, supporting it if necessary.  Boles said that he would resign the Conservative whip if thus would be required to block the move.  (Which, as we now know, it wasn’t.)  His Chairman said the threat was “unpatriotic”.  In our view, the Association might have lived with Boles’ attachment to Norway-then-Canada, sorry, Norway Plus, sorry, Common Market 2.0.  After all, there are plenty of other Tory MPs who are pushing the scheme.  None that we know of faces a serious deselection push.  But in none, perhaps, did the relationship between MP and Association run so deep into the sand.

Anyway, the breakdown gathered pace.  The Association Executive called a special meeting; resolved to ask Boles to apply to be the Conservative candidate at the next election, and planned – very clearly – to deny him that privilege.  Boles told them to bog off – well, not in quite so many words, but that was the sum of his response.  He was under no obligation under Party rules to play ball.  And (please note) Downing Street, CCHQ and the Whips Office have backed him up throughout.

As is sometimes the case when marriages start to go bust, one of the spouses began to be seen with third parties downturn.  Boles tweeted that he and other Tory MPs would work with the opposition to stop No Deal.  That they had learned to “ignore” whips, “shrug off” deselection attempts, and work with “friends” from the other side of the chamber.  He warned that if May backtracked on commitments that he supported she would “forefeit the confidence of the House of Commons”.  That sounded a bit like a threat to vote with Labour to bring the Government down.  He dined with the devil – or rather met with Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss Norway Plus. He said that Jess Phillips would make “a great Prime Minister”.  For local activists who have clocked who she is, this may have been the unkindest cut of all.

And so to last weekend.  It is important to note that Boles was not deselected.  He had fended off the Association’s executive – and CCHQ was backing him up.

Rather, he has gone voluntarily.  As his letter of explanation put it: “I am not willing to do what would be necessary to restore a reasonable working relationship with a group of people whose views and values are so much at odds with my own.”  He has packed his bags and departed the house – leaving a raging spouse to trash the dress, jump up and down on the wedding photos, dial Canada’s speaking clock from the smartphone he forgot to take with him, and slash holes in the crotches of his underpants.

Where does that leave the friends of both?  Thinking, at the end – what a waste, on both sides: of time, promise, Boles’ talents, activists’ commitment and (who knows?) even a kind of love.

Boles has not left the Conservative whip, let alone the Conservative Party.  There is no obligation we know of which requires the local MP to join his local Association.  He could always seek a candidacy elsewhere.  But were he so minded, would another Association be intrepid enough to take him?  As for Grantham and Stamford, our advice, for what it’s worth, is: next time round, after Davies and Boles, select someone reassuringly dull.

The 113 Conservative MPs who voted for May’s motion to extend Article 50

Gove and Davis followed the Prime Minister, but they were heavily outnumbered in the Parliamentary Conservative Party. The Chief Whip abstained.

Including tellers, 113 Conservative MPs voted for the Prime Minister’s motion to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit this evening – despite Theresa May promising an exit on 29th March more than 50 times. They were heavily outnumbered within their own Party: 190 Conservative MPs opposed extension, and in our survey over 77 per cent of Conservative members wanted MPs to vote against. The Chief Whip abstained, while Alun Cairns abstained by voting in both lobbies.

Here is the full list of those who backed May’s motion:

  • Bim Afolami
  • Peter Aldous
  • Edward Argar
  • Victoria Atkins
  • Richard Benyon
  • Paul Beresford
  • Nick Boles
  • Peter Bottomley
  • Andrew Bowie
  • Karen Bradley

 

  • Steve Brine
  • James Brokenshire
  • Robert Buckland
  • Alistair Burt
  • James Cartlidge
  • Alex Chalk
  • Greg Clark
  • Kenneth Clarke
  • Therese Coffey
  • Alberto Costa

 

  • Geoffrey Cox
  • Stephen Crabb
  • David Davis
  • Jonathan Djanogly
  • Oliver Dowden
  • David Duguid
  • Alan Duncan
  • Philip Dunne
  • Tobias Ellwood
  • Mark Field

 

  • Vicky Ford
  • Luzy Frazer
  • George Freeman
  • Mike Freer (teller)
  • Roger Gale
  • Mark Garnier
  • David Gauke
  • Nick Gibb
  • Cheryl Gillan
  • Robert Goodwill

 

  • Michael Gove
  • Luke Graham
  • Richard Graham
  • Bill Grant
  • Damian Green
  • Justine Greening
  • Dominic Grieve
  • Sam Gyimah
  • Philip Hammond
  • Stephen Hammond

 

  • Matt Hancock
  • Richard Harrington
  • Oliver Heald
  • Peter Heaton-Jones
  • Nick Herbert
  • Damian Hinds
  • Simon Hoare
  • George Hollingbery
  • Kevin Hollinrake
  • John Howell

 

  • Jeremy Hunt
  • Nick Hurd
  • Alister Jack (teller)
  • Margot James
  • Sajid Javid
  • Jo Johnson
  • Andrew Jones
  • Gillian Keegan
  • Seema Kennedy
  • Stephen Kerr

 

  • Mark Lancaster
  • Jeremy Lefroy
  • Oliver Letwin
  • Brandon Lewis
  • David Lidington
  • Paul Masterton
  • Theresa May
  • Patrick McLoughlin
  • Maria Miller
  • Anne Milton

 

  • Andrew Mitchell
  • Nicky Morgan
  • David Mundell
  • Bob Neill
  • Sarah Newton
  • Caroline Nokes
  • Neil Parish
  • Mark Pawsey
  • John Penrose
  • Claire Perry

 

  • Dan Poulter
  • Rebecca Pow
  • Victoria Prentis
  • Jeremy Quin
  • Amber Rudd
  • David Rutley
  • Antoinette Sandbach
  • Bob Seely
  • Alok Sharma
  • Alec Shelbrooke

 

  • Keith Simpson
  • Nicholas Soames
  • Caroline Spelman
  • John Stevenson
  • Rory Stewart
  • Gary Streeter
  • Mel Stride
  • Hugo Swire
  • Justin Tomlinson
  • David Tredinnick

 

  • Edward Vaizey
  • Robin Walker
  • Jeremy Wright

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May is now well enough to be angry

The Prime Minister is also astute enough to get Gove to make the case for Meaningful Vote Three.

Theresa May is recovering. She is now well enough to be angry, which anyone who has nursed a recovering invalid will know is a good sign.

The object of her fury is an elderly, bearded Labour Party Leader from Islington. If he were standing at the bus stop, he would look perfectly inoffensive.

But standing at the Dispatch Box, he becomes insufferable. He asks her rambling, incoherent questions, and never takes in her replies.

It is also evident he has not done his prep. “It might help if he actually read it,” she said in a cutting tone during today’s exchanges.

What document she meant, we are not quite sure. It is probably an official text of vital importance which we have not read ourselves.

But we do not aspire to be the next Prime Minister, and Corbyn does, or at least should. That is the point of the Leader of the Opposition: to be the PM in waiting to whom the country can turn in its hour of need.

May is dreadfully weak, and has just lost two votes by enormous margins, but Corbyn never gives the slightest sign that he could step in and do a better job.

Her voice strengthened as she pointed out that she wants to fulfil the referendum result, and so did he, once, but now he wants to frustrate it by holding a second referendum fixed in such a way as to overturn the result.

“I may not have my own voice,” she declared, “but I do understand the voice of the country.” Though not quite Elizabeth I at Tilbury, it was enough to flatten Corbyn.

Each week before these encounters her staff should tell her some irritating detail about Corbyn. She is better when she is angry with him.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer came on next. He began with the “cloud of uncertainty hanging over our economy”, but went on to report that the economy “is remarkably robust”. Here is another reason why the Government has not fallen.

We next enjoyed a contest between a Cavalier and a Roundhead, two parliamentarians of wonderfully different styles, each of whom has at least some of the gifts required to be PM, not that we wish to spoil their chances.

Michael Gove stood in for the Prime Minister, who sat beside him resting her voice and still looking, in profile, very fierce and aquiline, as if she would like nothing better than to seize the mouse-like Corbyn in her talons, carry him off to her eyrie and and tear him to pieces with her beak.

Corbyn, however, had fled, leaving Sir Keir Starmer to make the Labour case.

Disraeli once attacked Lord Salisbury as “a great master of jibes and flouts and jeers”, and that is the Tory tradition in which Gove belongs.

Anna Soubry, another exponent of that tradition but now on the Opposition benches, launched a furious and quite prolonged assault on the Conservative leaders, accusing them of whipping against the amendment proposed by Caroline Spelman, a former Party Chairman, and adding that this was “a shameful carry-on”.

Gove replied in his most insolent tone that she is a barrister, and “I also understand why lawyers are paid by the hour”.

Soubry rose in her wrath on a point of order and said that as a criminal barrister she was not paid by the hour, and had done a lot of pro bono work “under his cuts” – a reference to economies supposedly made when he was Lord Chancellor.

In order to show how bad No Deal would be, Gove sought to demonstrate that it would create great difficulties for farmers. The longer he went on about this, the clearer it became that the Government is intent on holding Meaningful Vote Three, an event already referred to by the knowledgeable as MV3, as if it were some rather uninspiring sports car.

Gove enjoyed baiting the Scottish Nationalists, whom he accused of “repetitious and self-serving chicanery”, and they enjoyed being scandalised by him.

Here is a minister who knows how to divert attention from whatever it is that he does not want to talk about. Another point in May’s favour is that she can see the need for quick, clever, flamboyant performers such as Gove and Geoffrey Cox.

Starmer is a gladiator cast in quite a different mould. He is a lawyer, and builds a case which is meant to impress by its massive and impregnable solidity, especially compared to the gimcrack points made by his opponents.

Mark Francois, a leading figure in the European Reform Group, intervened to accuse the Government of being intent on bringing back the Withdrawal Agreement for yet another Meaningful Vote. He bet Starmer £50, with the proceeds to go to Help for Heroes, that MV3 will take place on Tuesday 26th March.

“I don’t gamble,” Starmer said with a smile. Gambling would be at odds with his persona as the safe pair of hands. But for the time being, Brexit remains, just about, in the hands of May, with Gove and Cox as her knights errant.

WATCH: Gove – No Deal would hit British farmers

He says that beef and sheep farmers would face tariffs of “at least 40 per cent, in some cases more than 100 per cent.”

John Bald: Mixed ability teaching is still stopping our children learn languages

Vacuous proposals for a “national strategy” are made – with no reference to standards or teaching methods. Wishful thinking won’t fix the system.

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Readers of this column will know that I have been worried about the decline of language learning for many years, and have been doing my best to help the government tackle it. At a DfE seminar in 2010, some of our critics, including several drawing six-figure salaries from quangos, argued that I was wrong to say that we were facing a national disaster. Sitting beside me was the head of languages at Mossbourne Community Academy, whose department had just achieved 24 A* grades in German, and 28 A* grades in Spanish, by the simple method of grouping pupils according to their needs and abilities, teaching them well, and ensuring that they worked hard and behaved themselves.

Correcting the errors of these quangos, and their friends in teacher training, is a long, hard task. Wholesale cheating in examinations was only removed last year, and the position is still not secure in speaking tests. The errors began with the late Professor Eric Hawkins, who advocated “tolerance” of pupils’ errors – leading to no progress at all for many – and continued with the work of a series of overlapping and expensive organisations that put all of their efforts into exposing children to language, with no attention to the results. Mixed ability teaching was the hidden agenda, and research efforts kept well away from it, because it was obvious that there was a price to be paid in terms of the achievements of the most able pupils. The zealots in charge of the quangos were prepared to pay this price, though they could not afford to do so openly.

Through the efforts of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, their quangos have been closed down, but their legacy and continuing influence are clear in reports issued by the British Academy on behalf of four others – including the Royal Society – and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Languages. The first report proposes a “national strategy”, reminiscent of Blair’s solution to every problem. It makes no reference to standards or teaching methods, and proposes a link to similar strategies in Scotland and Wales, neither of which has shown any evidence of improved standards. In Wales, under 20 per cent of pupils took a GCSE in a language other than Welsh in 2017, which indicates that they have a problem rather than a solution.

The BA report cites an estimate from Cardiff Business School that failure to learn languages is costing us £48bn a year, but does not mention the report’s admission that it contains “a wide margin of error.” It’s hard to see the Royal Society accepting this in any other area of its work, and highlighting the estimate without the qualification is more suited to propaganda than to science. Much more reliable is a comment by Richard Hardie, former Chairman of UBS, to the All-Party Parliamentary group, that what was needed was linguists with the levels of linguistic skill and fluency needed to design and negotiate contracts and understand regulations. The Cardiff recommendation of high-level business placements, including MBAs, is in line with this view.

The All-Party group is something of a misnomer, as a large number of Conservative MPs are members, but never attend its meetings. Its “National Recovery Programme” makes the important point that the decline in languages has damaged the supply of teachers, a phenomenon that has resulted in one civil servant receiving a decoration from the French government for providing work for French nationals who couldn’t find any in France. Otherwise the report is very similar to that of the British Academy, an uncosted wishlist with no mention of the issue of standards, which is at the heart of the decline in A level, or indeed of the steps the government is taking to address the issue.

The first of these, the Mandarin Excellence Project, is leading to higher standards in the learning of Chinese than we have ever had in the UK, and has turned round a situation in which millions of pounds, and the goodwill of the Chinese government, were squandered through lack of consistency and support. It was mortifying to see some of the best teaching anywhere wasted because no-one provided any consolidation between lessons, leaving the visiting teacher to start from scratch each time. Now, pupils are given an intensive course that ensures that they really understand how spoken and written Mandarin work, and have the satisfaction of knowing that they are making real progress, as the All-Party group has seen. A similar, though less intensive, approach is to be developed through the national system of Language Hubs, based at York University and led by Dr Rachel Hawkes, a former president of the Association for Language Learning, and Professor Emma Marsden.

Unlike the British Academy and APPG proposals, these initiatives have a clear emphasis on standards and outcomes, which is the only long-term way to address the concerns of Richard Hardie, and of the APPG itself in relation to the supply of teachers. For these two organisations to take no notice of them at all would be disappointing, if it were not for the ever-present elephant in the room, mixed ability teaching, which remains a matter of principle for our opponents, whether it enables children to learn effectively or not. The pupils I see are being failed by the system. They need better teaching, not wishful thinking.

PS. The Select Committee has reported on the nursing degree apprenticeship, and the government replied on Monday.

Our survey. Next Tory leader – Johnson is top again. Here’s why he’s in pole position with minimum effort.

It is striking how little the former Foreign Secretary is doing to maintain his lead. Then again, he scarcely needs to stir – for the moment.

Last month, Boris Johnson led our Next Tory Leader question with 26 per cent of the vote.  This month, he is top with 24 per cent.  Dominic Raab was second with 12 per cent; now he is second with 13 per cent.  Michael Gove was third with nine per cent; this month, he is third with ten per cent.  The mass of potential candidates on single figures ratings continues.  These changes are footling.

It is striking how little the former Foreign Secretary is doing to maintain his lead.  This morning sees his weekly outing in the Daily Telegraph, in which he has pop at the apparently forthcoming Bloody Sunday prosecutions.  Most weeks, it rages against the Government over Brexit.

Otherwise, he is, by the standard of such a master of self-projection, withdrawn.  Although he is not absent from Brexit-related proceedings in the Commons – he quizzed the Prime Minister during her statement of February 12, for example – he is not at the forefront of them either, like say Yvette Cooper or Bill Cash.  For example, he didn’t participate in last week’s debate.

Nor does he appear on BBC Question Time or Any Questions.  Indeed, he doesn’t seem to like being on a panel, and expose himself to the scrutiny of other members, or the chairman, or the audience.  (Though he performed robustly in during the EU referendum TV debates.)  His preferred forum is the big set-piece speech, like that he delivered at last year’s Party Conference ConservativeHome fringe event.

So what is going on?  This site’s tentative answer is that the main obstacle to Johnson’s ambitions is not the voters.  Nor (clearly) is it Party members.  It is Conservative MPs, who may not forward his name to those members for the final stage of a leadership election.  Which is why his priority at present is wooing them.

In the meantime, activists’ confidence in the coherence of the Government is low, and this lowers the ratings of potential rivals.  So the former Foreign Secretary is able to sit it out, enjoying his regular double digit lead in this survey, with other polls also showing him in the lead.

The Daily Telegraph is many party members’ broadsheet of choice, so that weekly column is enough to remind them he’s still alive and kicking.  His main opponent is not hostile MPs or disillusioned Remain voters or Cabinet members.  It is the passing of time – and the prospect of someone else, someone new emerging who is less divisive, less scarred.

WATCH: Gove – “It is Government policy to leave on the 29th of March”

The Environment Secretary says that the priority is securing a deal which can “avert either no Brexit, or no deal.”

Rachel Wolf: On policy, it’s not the Independent Group that’s driven to the margins. It’s the Conservative Right.

The new group’s platform is not very inspiring – if, like me, you still feel public services could do with improvement. But its biggest problem is it they won’t be very different from the Conservatives’.

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Will the former Conservative and Labour Members of the Independent Group find it easy to come to a consistent policy platform? And will that platform be ‘centre left’ or ‘centre centre’? My answers, in turn, are “yes”, and “there is no longer a meaningful distinction in Westminster between these two”.

To explain why, it’s important to look at the wider policy background.  There’s not been much of policy discussion within the Conservative Party recently. It’s wholly unclear what its domestic agenda would be at the next general election. Brexit dominates.

That will have to change. Anyone who campaigned in the 2017 general election discovered – to their cost – that many voters cared less about Brexit than the Conservative Party did. Doorstep conversations were often focused on the NHS and school funding – where the Conservatives were repeatedly crushed.

People in Westminster are often process, politics, and personality geeks – but the public care more about issues. Miserably, Brexit has whittled the number of domestic policy discussions to almost zero. The environment has become a major policy focus because at least, under Michael Gove, the Conservatives have something – anything – to say (even if that anything now appears to include a strong support for protectionism and tariffs).

Vote Leave, of course, recognised all this. Their arguments focused on the concrete: NHS funding, immigration control. Ideas that would have a direct impact on voters.

So if the Independent Group are to survive – and grow – they will need to make a differentiated case to the electorate on issues that they care about. One of their challenges, in my view, is that the space open for them is not as wide as many think.

While Theresa May talks like a traditional Conservative, domestically her government is increasingly indivisible from one that would be run by a Soft Left (not even necessarily Blairite) Prime Minister. She may have talked about citizens of nowhere, and Gavin Williamson may engage in occasional sabre-rattling, but all the substance points in the opposite direction.

The Conservative Government has become increasingly paternalist (with bans created or looming on public health issues such as sugar; on environmental issues like plastic and ivory; and on activities like social media). Ministers no longer focus on market-based reforms of public services in health or education (many of the interventions made by, for example, Justine Greening on education were completely indistinguishable from those that Gordon Brown and Ed Balls might have made back in their day). The Tories’ commitment to fiscal conservatism remains greater than Labour, but the dividing line is increasingly narrow.

Policies that were once derided when floated by Ed Miliband – such as the energy price cap – are now pushed by the Conservatives. The toughest area of government reductions that can be felt by voters – welfare – is being softened by Amber Rudd and the toughest area of government restriction – immigration – is being softened by Sajid Javid. It is only because Jeremy Corbyn is so extreme (and because all we ever discuss is Brexit) that there remains much distance between the Government and the Opposition. Between TIG and the government? It’s not very obvious.

Let’s take an article written by Chuka Umunna in 2011 in which he makes an appeal for “One Nation Labour” and which includes the two following passages:

“there is no disagreement on the need to address the deficit – despite coalition claims to the contrary. Where the disputed terrain lies is around the speed and depth of reduction and what that means for growth and jobs. “

“What I call “bad capitalism” – unrestrained capital, highly speculative, obsessed with the short term, dismissive of the ties that bind – acts as a barrier to this notion of the good society; whereas “good capitalism” – one that is entrepreneurial and productive with good democratic corporate governance – can smooth the path to a better tomorrow.”

Both of these reflect current government policy.

Now let’s take the Conservative defectors. They themselves sit on the soft left, One Nation wing of the Conservative Party.  All three of the Conservative leavers are critical of grammar schools, and are likely to support a liberal immigration policy. Allen has been a long standing critic of the rollout of welfare reforms. Sarah Wollaston has argued for a long time for much more NHS funding. Soubry is the one who may be most uncomfortable in a centre-left party – she is clearly a supporter of almost everything the Coalition government did, including “austerity”, and she has been an active Conservative for a very long time.

Fundamentally, I don’t think that merging with former Labour members will be a challenge. They will all agree that more money should be spent by the state (including redistribution). They will share a widescale support for state interventionism. There will be mutual antagonism towards some traditional ‘Tory’ policies.

This isn’t a terrible platform for public support (other than on immigration). It’s certainly not very inspiring if, like me, you still feel public services could do with quite a lot of improvement. But its biggest problem is that it won’t be very different from the Conservatives’.

I began this article saying that policy matters. It does – to peoples’ lives and therefore what voters want to know about. The irony seems to me that, actually, the TIG won’t have much new and different to say from the current government (though they might say it in a better way with different sounding people). It is the traditional right, now criticised for driving out Conservatives over Brexit, that has no place in the current domestic policy debate.

Future of Education 2) Mark Lehain: Now we need full academisation and reformed funding

The first writer in our mini-series says that creating more grammars is a distraction from change that matters.

Mark Lehain is Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence, and founder of the Bedford Free School.

It’s been four-and-a-half years and three Secretaries of State since Michael Gove ruled the roost at the Department for Education. Like all good teachers, he knew that telling a story is a great way to explain things – and he was a brilliant storyteller.

He explained that the purpose of education is to enable people to be the authors of their own lives, and that the best way to achieve this is to experience a broad academic curriculum to 16, in schools that have the most ambitious of expectations for them. He recognised that there was excellence in the system but that it wasn’t to be found everywhere. To raise the bar across the board thus required fundamental change. And boy, did we get it.

The National Curriculum, exam system, school funding mechanisms, school inspections, qualifications, teacher training, governance structures, free schools, behaviour regulations, accountability measures… All these and more were reformed in four short years.

Gove was always going to be a hard act to follow. He did much of the heavy lifting, and his successors have had to contend with tighter budgets and Brexit. Neither Nicky Morgan nor Justine Greening really had time to enact their plans. Damian Hinds has only been in the job for just over a year, and inherited some particular challenges, but he has managed to get some great stuff out of the door and bring more oomph to the flagship academies and free schools policies.

However, whilst Gove talked relentlessly about parents and pupils, it is fair to say that much of the focus since 2014 has shifted back to reassuring the “producers” – teachers and schools. Also, it’s pretty clear to me that the only education issue that gets most Tories excited is that of selective grammar schools, and that there is no organised or proactive group of Conservative MPs actively cheerleading for the post-2010 reforms.

This is unfortunate as it has left a vacuum that is being filled by some retrograde ideas. The Education Select Committee has been captured by a new blob of government-funded charities, edu-lobbyists, academics and others advocating a worldview that I hoped was long gone.

These people believe that violent or badly behaved children are just victims of trauma, “unmet needs”, or austerity; that a knowledge-rich curriculum is elitist, not empowering; that schools are exam factories (even though Gove and Nick Gibb slashed the number that children sit); and so on. The reports coming out from the committee are as misguided as anything from the bad old days.

Sadly, these ideas are gaining traction elsewhere. Fed anecdotes by this new blob, the media run stories about “the victims of exclusions” – ignoring the plight of staff and students traumatised by persistently disruptive children or aggressive and dysfunctional families. They call for government league tables to “take into account” the class or ethnicity of children – “contextualised value added” in the jargon – which is just a fancy way of embedding the soft bigotry of low expectations and ensuring that birth remains destiny for too many.

All of this puts at risk the growing excellence that we have our schools today. The ministerial team at Education is good, but they’re tied up grappling with some pretty big issues: sustainable university funding, the role of Further Education, creating a world-class set of technical qualifications, and so on. We can’t rely on just them to defend recent gains or develop policies for the next phase of government.

It is teachers working with families that unleash greatness in our schools, not politicians in the DfE; they should just create the framework and get out of the way. To hold the line whilst this happens, we need more Conservatives to celebrate the successes of recent years.

We also need to finish reforming three major parts of the system – to make it more coherent and pupil-focused – whilst resisting an old flame we’ve flirted with recently.

Full academisation is vital since, before long. we’ll have two-thirds of children (and so money) in academies, and so reach a point where councils literally don’t have enough maintained schools to fund their education departments. Now is the time to consider exactly how we move the final third into charitable control, and rethink the role of different players in the system such as local authorities, the Department for Education, multi-academy trusts, etc. This is a pragmatic, not ideological, move; even the Catholic Church has announced it will do this to all its schools.

We also have to revisit how schools are funded. The system inherited in 2010 was a right mess, with huge variations in the money different schools received, across the country and within local authoriries too. Gove brought in a “local funding formula” to deal with the latter, but historical differences persist across the country. If we’re going to address this, it’s going to take a big chunk of cash to minimise the number of losers in any transition. And if we don’t get this right we’ll struggle to be heard about anything else in education, as the “Schools Cuts” campaign showed in the 2017 general election.

Behaviour these days is better than it was, but there is still some way to go until it is as good as it should be in every case. Gove was clear that schools are first and foremost academic institutions of learning, not an extension of the justice or care system. He empowered Heads to do whatever it takes to keep schools safe and orderly. However, this is under attack from the Select Committee and the new blob. They want to restrict the power of schools to suspend or expel students – and they think they might gain support for this in the pending Timpson Review of exclusions.

Hopefully Timpson won’t propose that schools handle disruptive or violent children by themselves; this doesn’t help anyone, least of all the children concerned. A better approach is to grow more quality Alternative Providers and bring new organisations in, too. We already have a process for doing this: the free schools programme. Alongside this, make schools accountable for kids they exclude, and we’ll support everyone in both mainstream and alternative education – truly compassionate conservatism in action.

Finally, we must stop banging on about grammar schools. They add little to the system, switch off potential supporters, and undermine the other great things we’ve achieved by suggesting some kids are more “academic” than others. This simply isn’t true – this government has proved it.

Dixons Trinity AcademyReach Academy FelthamMichaela Community SchoolTauheedul Islam Boys’ High SchoolKings Leadership Academy – these and others prove that grammar school-style education can successfully be accessed by all kids. Selection at 11 is unnecessary, divisive, and counter-productive.

Overall then, when it comes to schools, standards, and choices, the Conservatives have achieved so much for parents and their children. We mustn’t be shy of explaining these successes to all-and-sundry, to enable us to finish this chapter of the story that Gove started.