Lessons from Badenoch for Sunak and Truss. The winner will be the candidate most eager to change Britain into a more conservative country.

23 Jul

Is this really the fourth term of Conservative Government? After all, the first term, lasting five years, was a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The second saw a small majority for David Cameron, and ended within little more than twelve months.

The third saw Theresa May lose that majority, and fall within three years. The fourth will see Boris Johnson enter and exit within roughly the same timeframe.

All that within twelve years: Brexit and Covid have compressed the ordinary political cycle. Four Tory terms of four years each would have run to 2026,16 years in all.  Four of five years each would have taken us to 2030.

That would be two years longer than the Margaret Thatcher-John Major continuum of 18 consecutive governing years.  Instead, those four terms will be squeezed into 14 years maximum. Which could have consequences for the psychology of this contest.

Conservative members may approach it asking which candidate would best deal with the crises of our day: cost of living, Ukraine war, the threat to the Union, the skewed distribution of housing and capital between the generations.

Or they may ask themselves which candidate is more likely to win the next general election for the Conservatives. Some will doubtless do both. But others will view the contest in the light of the recent past, not the immediate future.

They will pose themselves the question I posed earlier, but with a focus on the delivery of change. We are twelve years into Conservative government, they will ask themselves, so why isn’t this a more conservative country?

For the longer the Tories are in opposition, the more members want them back in government. That’s why they took a punt on David Cameron in 2005, despite him being the more left-leaning of the two finalists.

But the longer the party is in government, the more those activists ask: what’s the point?  Why hold office at all if we don’t shift the dial?

In one sense, the question is unfair.  The BorisJohnson/Dominic Cummings duo delivered Brexit – the biggest governing change in Britain since the Thatcher years, and with even bigger governing implications.

Cameron gave us the referendum that made it possible. His government drove down the structural deficit.  Michael Gove conjured up the academies and free schools programme. Iain Duncan Smith installed Universal Credit.

But though the Tory actors on stage have come and gone, and played their parts as best they could, many Tory activists will cast a cold eye on what they see as the same old scenery, stage staff, and script.

The Militant Tendency spoke of the commanding heights of the economy. Who controls the commanding heights of our culture, and what shapes so many of the thoughts and crafts so many of the words that our political actors deliver?

I’ve space only to delve into one aspect of the answer, and so select a consistent element of the script under all of the UK’s main parties: the official doctrines of equality, inclusion and diversity.

Parliament, the civil service, the judiciary, the armed forces, the quangocracy – all must become more diverse, inclusive and equal, we are told.  And in a multi-racial and multicultural country there will always be a lot of truth in the claim.

But not the whole of it. Which equality? Before the law? Of opportunity?  Of outcome? What diversity – of ethnicity alone? Of class? Of thought? And who are the lest included, and from what?

These are not questions that bother the average voter. But Conservative members, not ordinary punters, will choose their next Party leader, and thus the next Prime Minister. And the consequences of those official doctrines preoccupy many of them.

During the Thatcher years, Party members wanted economic change. Obviously, they will now be concerned with the threat to their living standards, and the row between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss over how to tackle it will help to swing their votes.

But my sense is that the change they most want now is not so much economic as cultural – or rather both, since the two are interconnected. After all, equality of outcome requires mass state intervention. That intervention requires high taxes.

So does what many Tories see as the diversity and inclusion industry, and the burdens it places on smaller businesses that bigger ones can bear. Though for some of them, the cultural costs of woke are even higher.

Defund the police, and order breaks down.  Rubbish your history in education, and your sense of self-confidence breaks collapses.  Neglect out-of-favour groups – such as the white working class – and there can be no true social cohesion.

Most Party members may not know who Munira Mirza is, or have read the Sewell Report‘s demolition of the claim that all ethnic minorities are disadvantaged compared to the majority, or mastered Raghib Ali’s research into how disparities really work.

But they get the point intuitively. I cite the push for diversity almost at ransom – as an example of how, to many Tory members, the actors on stage may change but the script remains the same, because those who write it aren’t removed at election time.

You may think that this view of theirs is hysterical, and that these Conservatives have matters out of proportion; or point out that they are disproportinately old, male and white compared to the rest of the population.

But they are not racists or reactionaries: were they so, the Conservatives would not have produced such a diverse spread of leadership candidates in this poll: Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Suella Braverman, plus Sunak and Truss themselves.

Which takes us to another of those candidates, Kemi Badenoch.  The reason why her campaign got halfway round the Tory world while the other candidates were getting their boots on is that she caught the desire of so many Conservative activists for change.

I suspect the winner of this contest will be the candidate who best captures the Badenochian vibe – and convinces Conservative activists that they will make Britain a more conservative country if elected.

If our survey and YouGov’s polls are right, that is a bigger challenge for Sunak.  The danger for him is that his tax battle with Truss becomes an economic Stalingrad into which he is sucked into with mounting losses.

Perhaps it is too late for him, after those tax rises, his resignation and the Green Card row, to refigure himself in members’ eyes as the Sunak of furlough, before the bills came in – back into the winning guy they’d happily have as a son-in-law.

For crafting a conservative alternative to the official doctrine, exposing the bad faith actors who try to delegitimise it, and persuading civil society to run with it takes time.

It’s one thing to have a Prime Minister’s Office geared up, say, to stopping civil servants using Black Lives Matter hashtags; it would be another to change the Equalities Commission into an Opportunities Commission.

Truss has made a start in this arena as Minister for Women and Equalities, but no more.  Sunak has been focused on the economy, and we have little sense of what he thinks.

Winning elections is a good thing and governing well is even better.  But the key to this election may well be that Conservative members plump for the most conservative candidate.

Is that so hard to understand?  The ballot opens in fewer than ten days. Both candidates are running out of time.  Especially the former Chancellor, if those polls are right.

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Andrew Gimson’s Tory leadership sketch: Mordaunt makes the weather as Brady gives us the marks

13 Jul

Sir Graham Brady entered, his manner that of the headmaster of an upstanding provincial grammar school which upholds traditional teaching methods and gives its pupils an education second to none.

He read out the marks in alphabetical order. Sunak came top with 88. There is every chance he will win a scholarship at one of our leading universities, just so long as he is not tempted across the Atlantic by a munificent offer from some famous American hall of learning.

Bottom of the class were Hunt, with 18, and Zahawi, on 25. They will not be permitted to go through to the next round.

How harsh these traditional methods are, and how dramatic. They produce winners and losers, and do so in the full glare of publicity.

Committee Room 14, where Sir Graham spoke, is a lofty and magnificent chamber overlooking the River Thames, its dark green walls adorned with splendid history paintings, hundreds of MPs crowding in at the last moment to hear the result.

And what an egalitarian occasion it was. Famous MPs rubbed shoulders with unknown ones, everyone had one vote, and the mighty could easily find themselves humiliated

“Heseltine didn’t do very well,” a sketchwriter remarked – a reference to the famous contest of 1990, when Michael Heseltine mortally wounded Margaret Thatcher but was himself defeated by John Major, who became, for Thatcherites maddened by grief, the instrument of their revenge.

“A dark day for Charterhouse,” someone else said. Hunt was head boy of Charterhouse, and had failed to enthuse his fellow MPs.

The actual voting took place earlier in the afternoon in Committee Room 10, behind a fine statue of Joe Chamberlain gazing through his monocle.

Chamberlain, in Winston Churchill’s words, “was the one who made the weather”, but like Heseltine, never became Prime Minister.

Who now makes the weather? Just at the moment, Penny Mordaunt. With 67 votes, she achieved a commanding second place, which means the supporters of the other candidates all want to stop her.

“She’s the mermaid on the front of the Titanic,” one MP remarked. He would not say who he was supporting, but evidently not Penny, as she is generally known.

“She appeals to the failures,” someone else said. This could be a winning strategy: the parliamentary Conservative Party contains hundreds of people who think of themselves as failures.

Between the top and bottom of the class lay Truss on 50, Badenoch 40, Tugendhat 37 and Braverman 32. Someone assured me that Braverman is the most Tory candidate, but just now that does not look like a winning attribute.

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Next Tory Leader run-offs. Fifth: Nadhim Zahawi

12 Jul

Run-off scores –

Nadhim Zahawi: 27 per cent.

Kemi Badenoch: 56 per cent.

Don’t know: 18 per cent.

(939 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 34 per cent.

Suella Braverman: 47 per cent.

Don’t know: 19 per cent.

(940 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 52 per cent.

Jeremy Hunt: 24 per cent.

Don’t know: 24 per cent.

(939 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 37 per cent.

Sajid Javid: 35 per cent.

Don’t know: 28 per cent.

(939 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 28 per cent.

Penny Mordaunt: 56 per cent.

Don’t know: 15 per cent.

(938 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 47 per cent.

Priti Patel: 31 per cent.

Don’t know: 23 per cent.

(929 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 49 per cent.

Grant Shapps: 23 per cent.

Don’t know: 29 per cent.

(934 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 38 per cent.

Rishi Sunak: 35 per cent.

Don’t know: 27 per cent.

(936 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 34 per cent.

Liz Truss: 49 per cent.

Don’t know: 17 per cent.

(937 votes cast.)

Nadhim Zahawi: 44 per cent.

Tom Tugendhat: 31 per cent.

Don’t know: 26 per cent.

(938 votes cast.)

Although his financial affairs are under scrutiny, his candidacy has potential if he can make the final round.

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John Bald: We need an Education Secretary with an understanding of the challenges we face

12 Jul

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

The Conservative Education Society has a relatively small, but very experienced, membership. We meet in a Lords committee room, and on Monday last week were addressed by Will Quince MP, Children’s Minister, who had been hung out to dry by Boris Johnson on Monday morning’s media round. The Society observes Chatham House rules, so I cannot report what he said, but it was by some way the best informed, most practical and dynamic presentation I have ever heard from an education Minister. The contrast with some of Michael Gove’s successors as a Secretary of State, who have known nothing at all about education, and made their professional supporters cringe with embarrassment, could not have been greater.

This made Quince’s principled resignation the next morning more of a shock and more of a loss. Provision for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is a mess, and the government review, of which he had the final cut, pulled no punches. Two examples of nine year olds from my own work with parents – one assessed as having a mental illness related to demand avoidance who has a year’s wait to see a psychiatrist, and another experiencing severe anxiety and refusing to attend school, despite her parents’ sustained efforts, whose absences are marked as unauthorised, and whose parents are threatened with prosecution.

SEND is by no means the only mess, or even the biggest one. We rightly criticise our opponents for basing policies on ideology, but we have some of our own, and it is doing damage. When Katharine Birbalsingh stood up and told the truth about London schools in 2010 I stood up and cheered – in my living room – and my admiration has grown over the years. Here was opportunity, an alternative to the dead hand of local authorities and what Michael Gove accurately described as “the soft tyranny of low expectations.” Alas, through the influence of Dominic Cummings, some schools were placed in the hands of incompetents, and the academy trust system that replaced them has many of the vices of local authorities, with an added whiff of corruption. It is also extremely expensive. To pay for it, while meeting George Osborne’s requirement of cuts in overall expenditure, provision in further education and in sixth forms was slashed, denying opportunities to pupils whose parents could not afford private education.

The policy of making every school an academy, and now part of a Multi-Academy Trust, was conceived before the 2010 election, but only admitted publicly some years later. It culminated in Nadhim Zahawi’s ill-fated Schools Bill, one of the rare occasions on which the Lords have exercised their powers reasonably and responsibly. Some of the most successful schools in the country are threatened with compulsory incorporation into these organisations. Some are good, but too many have authoritarian managers who think that making their word law constitutes good leadership. To put these people in charge of some of the most distinguished headteachers we have is simply unacceptable, and it must not be allowed to happen. This is wrong and must be stopped.

Smaller scandals also have their origins in neoliberal ideology. It is now accepted that the allocation of the national tuition project to an organisation without experience in the field, on the grounds that they could pay lower wages, was farcical as well as damaging. The refusal to allow local authorities to build their own schools to meet local need, including SEND schools, is anti-social, inefficient and ruinously expensive, saddling councils with fees of hundreds of thousands of pounds for individual students, with no guarantee of quality. Imposing cuts in inspection while introducing new developments was both irresponsible and a false economy – see the failure of Stantonbury Campuses under a MAT leadership, which is very good at trumpeting its “values”. The privatised exam boards, whatever their technical label, have earned an appalling reputation for arbitrary decisions, unfair competition, and cost-cutting at the expense of quality.

Finally undoing the good work of dismantling Labour’s quangos, only to create another one, five times as big, in the Education Endowment Foundation, is plain old-fashioned folly. It duplicates the work of the National Foundation for Educational Research, has a website that mimicks the format of Trip Adviser Reviews, and is very, very expensive. Nothing neoliberal about that.

Many of us rejoiced in 2010 that we would have an education department again, rather than a New Labour thinktank. We at last had a chance to tackle the errors that had beset education since Labour’s botched introduction of comprehensive schools in the 60s. Whatever the outcome of the next election, that opportunity is now in serious jeopardy. Michelle Donelly is manifestly more experienced in education than James Cleverly, and should be restored to office forthwith. We can do without another Secretary of State who doesn’t know the work.

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Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Tory MPs queue up to stab Johnson in the back

6 Jul

What an ominous feeling there was before PMQs. It was like the feeling in one of those Westerns when it is “quiet, too damn quiet”. There was about to be a shocking eruption of violence.

At 11.55 the Tory benches were still quite sparsely occupied. Theresa May entered, wearing a black dress with a white floral pattern, and took her usual place two rows behind the front bench of glum ministers including the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nadhim Zahawi.

Would she speak? She did not. She craned her neck to see if the Prime Minister was about to enter from behind the Speaker’s chair, and she watched.

On the stroke of noon, Sajid Javid, until yesterday Health Secretary, took his place on the backbenches. Would he speak? He did.

But first we had PMQs. A few seconds before Javid, Boris Johnson had taken his seat to mingled cheers and boos. The Tory benches were by now pretty much full, but what had they come there to see, or to do? A public execution?

Johnson rose and spoke the customary words about having “meetings with ministerial colleagues and others”. Laughter as soon as he uttered the words “ministerial colleagues”, for everyone knew the identity of those colleagues had since yesterday evening become changeable.

The first question was about knife crime in Milton Keynes. MPs were more interested in knife crime in the Commons. Would so many daggers be plunged into Johnson’s back that he perished in public?

Sir Keir Starmer set out to plunge some daggers into Johnson’s front, but knew he was not the assassin who could strike the lethal blow. He taunted the Tories as “a corrupted party defending the indefensible”.

But were the Tories any longer defending their leader? Tim Loughton (Con, East Worthing and Shoreham) attacked him, followed by Gary Sambrook (Con, Birmingham Northfield) and David Davis (Con, Haltemprice and Howden).

Johnson was robust, varied by occasional moments of ruefulness. He insisted repeatedly that “the job of a Prime Minister is to keep going”.

But how could he keep going, if his own party told him his time was up? Here was his mortal weakness: that the occasion which gave him the chance to show undaunted determination to stay also allowed an increasing number of his own backbenchers to show their undaunted determination to sack him.

He turned to face Davis. The Prime Minister was now quite literally addressing his own party. Davis had invited him “to do the honourable thing”. Johnson thanked him in a rueful, almost a humorous tone, and went on: “I just couldn’t disagree with him more.”

Yes, there is, to put it mildly, a disagreement. The term rebellion would be more accurate, with hour by hour, quite soon minute by minute, the number of rebels swelling, as Tory MPs rushed to join what they take to be the winning side.

The worst was yet to come. Sajid Javid rose at the end of PMQs to make his resignation statement. Johnson had to stay, and to listen in silence.

Javid spoke of the importance of integrity, and said that “treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months”.

For a long time he had continued to give the PM “the benefit of the doubt”, but now, he had decided, “enough is enough”.

The moderation and sincerity of this gave it its force. As when Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s Government, the statement was all the more devastating because it was, in a curious way, quite flat.

As Johnson left the Chamber after Javid had spoken, someone shouted from the Opposition benches, “Bye, Boris.”

Hard at that moment to disagree.

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Making the ‘British Dream’ come true. Nadhim Zahawi’s speech to the ConHome Future Jobs Conference today.

5 Jul

Good morning.


I’m delighted to be able to attend the first of these new half-day events by Conservative Home. I have deep affection for Con Home: I’ve spoken at your events in the past, my great friend and partner Stephan Shakespeare used to be the proprietor of Con Home, and more recently your reporting, on my fantastic Schools Bill has been a timely reminder that you will report without fear or favour, which is exactly as it should be. I’m honoured to speak at this event, and I look forward to many more like it.


It’s also a real privilege to be here today in the RSA. I’m sure all of you here in the building will have seen that the full title of the RSA is the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. I love this full title, because commerce and manufacture, and indeed all true capitalism, is inherently an art as much as a science. Capitalism is human, it is creative, it’s innovative and it’s moral.



For most of human history, extractive zero-sum relations between the powerful and the downtrodden were the norm, even in some places into the modern world. Karl Marx was a member of the RSA, and we all know the destruction that the Communist world view brings to economies just as it does to everything else. And as some of you may know, I was born in Baghdad and lived the first decade of my life under a genocidal dictator. Believe me, you don’t want the Government having as much control over society and the economy in the way that Saddam did, or that Marxists still yearn for today.


But here in the UK, not least thanks to the thinking of another RSA fellow, Adam Smith, the modern economy was born. A consenting exchange of goods and services, in a manner that brings benefit to both parties, has changed the world these last few hundred years in a way that few other revolutions have come close to. And we are all the beneficiaries of this.



We are so used to the miracles of markets; invention, scale, trust between strangers to name a few, that we are repeatedly at risk of squandering this inheritance. Turning on the wealth creators, the risk takers, is an easy and tempting thing for a politician to do. Just ask our friends in the Labour Party. It is also completely wrong.


Without commerce, without businesses big and small, we shall fall. There would be no money for our schools or hospitals, no dazzling innovations that push science and technology forward (including no vaccines!). And no hope for a better tomorrow.


And as a great woman once said, there is no such thing as Government money, there is only taxpayers’ money, and I hope that all of us appreciate the many ways in which businesses big and small contribute to our society.


So, whilst I’m here to talk about skills for the modern economy, I can’t do that without setting out my thanks for the worlds of commerce and manufactures. I know what it’s like to start and build a business. When I founded YouGov, I learned that when you start a company, you must quickly turn your hand to many different things, finance, HR, marketing, sales, you name it.



And I learned a lesson that has helped me throughout my career. The hardest thing to do in any organisation, public sector or private, is to scale it. The quicker I could hire someone with the right skills and empower them, the sooner I could pass responsibility on to them and focus on something else.


Scale is hard, my friends, and the only way to sustainably scale is by having the right people with the right skills. And in the real world, that means having people out there who have the ability to be productive and fulfilled in their work.


There is a golden thread that runs through all of this Government’s efforts to ensure that people have the skills they need to be successful and to be able to make a contribution.


And that thread is based on what I’ve been talking about so far – it is the understanding that you cannot develop a modern skills agenda without holding business close and taking your lead from them. In 2022, where sectors are born and crushed in double time, there’s no way we in the centre of Government can, or should, try to dictate the skills of the future.




David Cameron sent me to the DfE as the apprenticeships Tsar – we had a lot of Tsars in those days, although there’s one modern Tsar I know we all desperately want to see the back of…


When David Cameron sent me to the DfE for the first time, I knew we had to involve business. One of the most exciting results, building on the excellent work of Labour Peer Lord Sainsbury, is the T-Level.


You can see the badge on my lapel, no; it doesn’t stand for Tory Leader, but T -Level! A T Level is an exciting new option for post-16 students, and our first T -Levellers will be graduating this summer.


T -Levels are the future my friends, because they are the equivalent of 3 A -Levels, have been designed alongside industry, and require a 45 day in-work placement. You can take a T Level in areas such as Construction or Health and Science, and this year will see the launch of T Levels in Engineering and Manufacturing, and soon you can take a T -Level in agriculture and more.


I am building different runways for peoples’ careers to take off from. Because once you have completed a T-Level, you can go to university, you can start an apprenticeship, or a degree-apprenticeship, or you can join the world of work, clear eyed about what work looks like, and ready to take on the world.


Unit for Future Skills 


To know with certainty what skills that world will need in the future is impossible. Tomorrow some genius, coming out of Imperial College London or a shed in their back garden, might invent a new widget that changes everything. But Government still makes investment assumptions, and it holds huge amounts of data to try to cater to these needs. Instead of hoarding this data, I have started the Unit for Future Skills that will pull data from across Whitehall, the DWP, HMRC and beyond and will publish all the data in regular cuts about what skills we calculate the economy will need.



This isn’t a planned economy – it’s the opposite; we will publish this data and the market can do what it wants with it. Some kids in a garage might slap and interface on it and make their fortune; some of you in the room may look and see a new career emerging. Data and transparency, my great ally in the vaccine deployment, will now be brought to bear on the economy of the future.


Graduate jobs announcement 


I know from my time in the private sector, and also as a Minister in BEIS, that businesses know they will struggle to compete in the future without a pipeline of highly skilled employees. They are willing to pay well for this talent.


And all too often I hear employers’ frustrations with a limited pool of graduates, even though we are still seeing job ads that state graduate in the essential criteria.



So, I’m urging employers to think differently about their recruitment. Think about whether they really need someone with a degree. The chances are there will be someone with other relevant skills, experiences, or qualifications that they are looking for.


Lifelong Loan Entitlement


And it’s not just young people for whom skills will be increasingly relevant. It’s something that will be crucial to more mature learners too, to ensure the future success of the British economy in the 21st century. I’m super excited about the idea of what’s known as modular learning. That is, smaller rounds of upskilling and reskilling to help you adapt to the changing economy.






I met a young man called Usman recently, who had taught himself to code. But because he didn’t have any formal qualifications, he and his wife found themselves working for today’s sponsor, working in an Amazon distribution warehouse in Derby. Then he discovered Google Certificates, which credentialed his skills and allowed him to prove to employers how talented he was. He was able to show his employers that he could code python and Java, he’s moved in Amazon’s dev team and has a bright future for his family.


And we are developing our own support system for this retraining revolution. At the moment, it’s called the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. It’s a mouthful, I know, and I’m going to come up with a better name for it. I came up with YouGov so I’ll get a snappier title.


The LLE represents the Government backing people with £37,000 in today’s fees over the course of their lives to retrain at any point in their lives. It can be taken in one go, or drawn down in modules. For example, if you are listening to this and you work in Aberdeen oil and gas, but want to move into hydrogen, we will back you to retrain.






Ronald Reagan once said “Today, if you invent a better mousetrap, the government comes along with a better mouse.” But he also said “There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.”  I believe this to the very marrow of my bones.


I have tried to live it since this country gave me the opportunities only afforded in the United Kingdom, and I want it to be true for everyone else. We talk about “levelling up” in terms of investment in infrastructure, but if we are to make a success of levelling up, it must mean levelling up people, investing in them and giving them access to the opportunities and skills they need.


This country is the greatest in the world, it helped me make my dreams come true to go from a small boy hiding in the back of the classroom, unable to speak a word of English, to the Education Secretary in Her Majesty’s Government and Member of Parliament for Shakespeare. And I won’t rest until everyone, young or old, has the skills and opportunities they need to make their British Dream come true as well.


Thank you.

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Next Tory Leader play-offs. Fourth: Nadhim Zahawi.

4 Jul

Candidate Three: Nadhim Zahawi

Run-off scores –

Nadhim Zahawi: 39 per cent

Penny Mordaunt: 40 per cent.

Don’t know: 21 per cent.

(776 votes cast)

Nadhim Zahawi: 39 per cent

Liz Truss: 41 per cent

Don’t know: 20 per cent.

(773 votes cast)


Nadhim Zahawi: 28 per cent.

Ben Wallace: 52 per cent.

Don’t know: 20 per cent.

(773 votes cast)

The Education Secretary  is proof of the incompleteness of tables that rank people in order of whether they are most popular rather than least unpopular.

In this month’s Next Tory Leader main question, Zahawi comes in fifth with seven per cent of the vote.

But as we have seen, in these play-offs he has seen off Kemi Badenoch, Steve Baker, Jeremy Hunt, Rishi Sunak and Tom Tugendhat.

And he is so close to Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss as to make no difference.

On a squeeze, he is four points behind Ben Wallace.

Sure, it’s unlikely that he could scoop up an entire column of don’t know votes.  But the Education Secretary seems to me solidly placed for a real leadership election if it happens soon – assuming that he has a firm base among Tory MPs.

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Cross-party coalition of peers cuts Zahawi’s chaotic Schools Bill down to size

1 Jul

Last month, we had a look at the curious case of the Schools Bill. After coming under fire for signing off on legislation which threatened to undo two decades of movement towards greater school autonomy, sources at the Department for Education indicated that the Government’s intention was always to gut its own Bill.

There was no indication at the time that they intended to do this just two weeks later; nor was it probably the plan to end up with papers such as the Daily Telegraph running headlines about u-turns.

But after a revolt in the House of Lords which saw a coalition of peers with Education experience table a slew of amendments to gut the top of the Bill, there probably wasn’t much choice. As a result, the Government is apparently planning to support the move and excise the first 18 clauses of their own Bill.

(When the story first broke, Department sources suggested that Lord Agnew and Lord Nash were cooperating on overhauling the Bill. Yet both co-sponsored all the amendments tabled by Lord Baker, removing Clauses 5-18.)

Baroness Barran, in a letter to all peers explaining the decision, says that the Government will table new clauses when the legislation returns to the House of Commons, and these will be “more tightly defined”; DfE sources say they will be focused on issues such as safeguarding and financial propriety, rather than the sweeping powers over staff, admissions, and the curriculum contained in the original proposals.

Furthermore, perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, yesterday also saw the official launch of the review “to future proof role of academy trusts“. Chaired by Barran, its findings will be used to help draft the revised clauses which will be put to MPs.

This was always a strange feature of the original story. The official version of events was that the Bill was drafted as widely as it was because it was always meant to be based on this review’s findings – it’s just the tight parliamentary timetable meant the legislation had to be launched before those findings were delivered.

Yet two weeks ago there didn’t seem to be any sort of timeline for when the review would report, nor a contingency plan in place for what would happen if this extraordinarily powerful Bill, theoretically a placeholder, cleared its various parliamentary hurdles before the findings were in.

Things on that front at least are now much clearer. If the Government wants to have a functional piece of legislation to present to the House of Commons in the autumn, it will need the evidence from which to draw the new clauses by then.

Officials at the DfE have apparently been tasked with coming up with a proper delivery timetable, which is welcome, although perhaps ought to have been done at the beginning.

There is much about this story which ought to be concerning to the Government; it is more evidence that an over-stuffed legislative timetable often means poorer legislation, and another reminder of how easily entrenched official attitudes can assert themselves when politicians take their eyes off the ball.

But from the perspective of education policy, there is also a sunnier side. The revolt on the red benches saw Conservative and Labour peers working together in defence of a common project. And more besides: Lord Judge, who tabled three of the amendments and was described by one involved as “hero of the hour”, is Convenor of the Crossbench Peers.

This is a welcome reminder of the real value of the House of Lords – it’s hard to imagine a bunch of professional also-rans doing such work in a Senate. But it also shows the breadth of the coalition that has built up, on the political side at least, behind the school reform agenda.

Given that the longevity of any reform owes much to how much buy-in there is from the Opposition, that bodes well for the project’s long-term prospects. Provided everyone keeps their eyes on the officials, that is.

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The strange story of the Schools Bill – and the taming of Gove’s education dream

17 Jun

It has been a long time since education really felt like it was at the top of the Government’s agenda. The issue which once seemed the defining issue of Coalition-era Conservatism only warranted a single page in Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto.

But even so, the claim levelled by Fraser Nelson in his column last week is extraordinary.

For those of you without a Daily Telegraph subscription, here’s the precis: former education secretaries have been giving the Schools Bill a proper mauling in the House of Lords, because it contains a sweeping power-grab by the centre which threatens to undo all the good work on school autonomy since 2010.

Perhaps more explosively still, Nelson alleges that the reason for this is that Nadhim Zahawi and his team were simply not across the legislation when it was rushed out, allowing civil servants at the DfE to effect a “revenge of the Blob”.

The Education Secretary is widely perceived as one of the stronger members of the current Cabinet; he ranked second in our most recent League Table. If that were truly the grip he had over his own Department, that would not bode well.

So what is actually going on with the Schools Bill? The answer comes in two parts: the legislative side, and the ideological side.

Part 1) The Bill

The common thread running through every version of what happened with the Schools Bill is that Downing Street needed it to go in May – so it went in May, when perhaps it ought not to have done so.

According to Nelson, this meant that it was tabled before Zahawi and his team were properly across its provisions. Sources at the Education Department deny this, and offer if anything a stranger version of events. It goes like this.

There is apparently an internal review currently being carried out by the Department (its membership and terms of reference were not available) about the rationalisation of the regulations governing academies. The plan is that the final form of the Education Bill will enact, more or less, the recommendations of this review.

Yet given the parliamentary timetable, there was not time to have this review conclude before tabling the Schools Bill. Instead, the Secretary of State decided to run the two concurrently.

This meant that the Bill had to be drafted very broadly, which is a big reason it looks so much like a power grab by the centre. But apparently, the plan is what when the review reports, the Government itself will remove most of the objectionable provisions.

Suffice to say, this is an extremely unusual way to proceed with legislation, if indeed that is what happened.

But there are a few gaps in the story. For starters, sources closer to Downing Street report that they thought the Bill was ready to go, and have watched it catch fire on the launchpad with some bemusement.

Nor did anyone do any pitch-rolling with Lords Agnew, Baker, Nash, and the others causing trouble in the Upper House. Whilst Agnew and Nash are apparently now working with the Department to put things right, nobody was able to confirm whether or not this arrangement was in place before they savaged it in debate. One assumes not.

Finally, I wasn’t able to get an answer about what would happen in the event that the review didn’t conclude in time and the Department found itself getting the Schools Bill close to the finish line without having been told which bits to take out. That feels like something that should have been worked out.

Either way, the strategy wasn’t briefed out and so now Zahawi’s clarifications in his speech of yesterday are being written up, perhaps unfairly, as a U-turn in the making.

Part 2) The Policy

So much for how the Bill is coming about. What is it actually doing? At one end of the debate, Nelson claims it is a betrayal of the entire free schools revolution. At the other, it’s merely a tidying-up exercise. Which is it?

As far as we can make out, it’s a bit of both.

The DfE insists that a huge range of the powers the Bill is allegedly ‘taking’ are in fact already exercised by the Secretary of State via the complex and somewhat haphazard arrangements which currently govern academies. The Bill merely moves a lot of these onto a statutory footing.

(However, they do concede that because officials have copied over headlines – “nature and quality of education,” “procedures and criteria for admission,” “suitability of staff” and “the spending of money” – and not the detailed contents, it does make the Bill appear much more sweeping than it is in reality.)

This isn’t an entirely neutral change – Lord Baker, the man behind University Technical Colleges, has raised concerns that it will make it harder for schools to assert their rights than it is under contract law. But it falls short of an “audacious, unannounced counter-reformation”.

Nonetheless, it would be false to describe the Bill as just a rationalisation or tidying-up exercise. There does seem to be an ideological gear-shift underway: towards standardisation.

This doesn’t mean uniformity; DfE sources insist that they intend only to ‘regulate against failure’, not ‘regulate for excellence’. But having allowed a thousand flowers to bloom under Gove, the idea now seems to be taking what has worked best and trying to apply it to the whole system.

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are viewed as the best way of spreading excellence through the system, so the push is to rationalise the State’s relationship with MATs and regulate them as effectively as possible, including expanding the DfE’s capacity to intervene against trusts which are actually failing or in serious financial difficulty.

Viewed one way, this could be seen as a culmination of the original academy agenda. Zahawi certainly frames it that way.

But it is nonetheless seems to signal a shift away from the original vision of Conservative education reform, which placed a much greater emphasis on individual schools having the freedom to do their own thing.

This point was raised in the Lords, but also seems to have caused some division within the Department. Zahawi apparently blocked efforts to include provisions in the Schools Bill that would have compelled individual free schools or single-academy trusts (SATs) to join MATs.

But given the direction of travel, that feels like a stay of execution. It makes sense from the Department’s point of view  – much easier to do business with a manageable number of national chains than a sprawling system of individual schools. The pressure to move against those will be continual, and not every Secretary of State will resist it.

For all that, however, this sort of active confusion is still preferable to further years of quiet drift. It is far better that Zahawi take an active approach to his brief than keep his head down and consign the Conservative education agenda to yet more years of quiet neglect.

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