At a Labour fundraiser last night – yes, even if you think victory any time soon is unlikely you have to help make sure the money keeps coming in for the day when that prospect might return – an activist asked: ‘Why on earth is Theresa May so adamant about not calling a general election?’
The first part of the answer is Brexit, and the reality that an election would force the Tories to come up with answers when, judging by ‘Brexit Secretary’ David Davis’ statement to the Commons on Monday, they have barely begun to understand the questions. Someone complained there was no Plan B. It strikes me there isn’t a Plan A either.
The second part of the answer became clearer this morning, with the news that Mrs May is to throw to the dog of the Tory Right the great big bone of more selective schools. David Cameron didn’t have a mandate for this, and nor does she. What she is doing – and if we had a strong Opposition I doubt she would even dare – is presenting herself not as a new Prime Minister who landed the top job on the back of Cameron’s referendum defeat; but as a new Prime Minister with a fresh mandate all of her own. But on a policy as big, as significant, and as controversial as this one, that is not going to stand up to much democratic examination.
There is a remarkable irony in the politics of leadership that emerged from the EU referendum. Though Jeremy Corbyn campaigned ineffectively – indeed, if he had put as much energy and organisation into the campaign to keep Britain in Europe as he has to the campaign to save his job, the result on June 23 might have been different – at least he did campaign.
Theresa May, on the other hand, was barely visible, astonishing given she was Home Secretary and issues on her watch, such as immigration and freedom of movement, were central to the eventual defeat for Remain. Corbyn’s reward was to face a challenge to his leadership, though admittedly the referendum was the tipping point reason as opposed to the main one; May’s reward was to end up as Prime Minister, cutting people and policies associated with Cameron and George Osborne down to size, and suddenly hobnobbing with the most powerful men and women on earth.
You could argue what she is doing is smart politics. She is making the most of the honeymoon. She is exploiting the weakness of the Opposition. She is new and interesting and, on taking office, made lots of the right noises. Nothing wrong in any of that, and the words on the steps of Downing Street, especially the commitment to social justice and mobility, were fine. But the policies on which she seems keenest are not. They would actually create the opposite effect to that which she claims she wants her time in Downing Street to deliver.
So on these two huge issues – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (whatever that means); and school selection – the signs are that beneath the touchy-feely talk, we have a considerably right-wing prime minister who, like previous leaders such as Michael Howard and Iain Duncan-Smith, tries to conceal it by talking the talk on being in the centre ground. They got found out, and if she continues too vigorously down the path she appears to be taking, so will she. Back to the tragedy of modern Westminster politics though – when so few on either side of the House feel a change of government any time soon is possible, the Government thinks it can do what it wants.
We should not be overly surprised at her move on selection. When, in 2013, then Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared to kill off the creation of ‘satellite grammars’ in Kent, one of the main forces of opposition emerged from a school in Maidenhead, with the backing of the local MP, Mrs May. For his many faults, Gove did appear to win the argument that using education to increase social mobility was best done by trying to raise standards in all schools, not by creaming off a few poorer kids to go to the best.
His successor, Nicky Morgan, is adamant that ‘separating people at eleven’ will not create a fairer or better education Britain. And think tanks on the right as well as the left, such as Policy Exchange, have produced detailed evidence suggesting selection would further damage rather than improve standards for poorer children. So given the hostility this will generate, Mrs May would only be considering this if she really believed in it. And if she does, that suggests a worldview considerably at odds with the one she set out on the day she became prime minister. It also suggests, for all her talk on the future of energy security for example, that ‘I study the evidence, listen to the experts and then make up my mind,’ that this may not be the case. It is not evidence that drives anyone to a belief that more grammar schools are the answer to our educational challenges; it is an actual belief in a two-tier State education system.
If she really wants evidence, there is plenty of it which shows that any semblance of advantage for those at selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who don’t. She could find that as far back as the Crowther Report of 1959; or in the more recent data from her own government which shows social segregation between schools is much higher in areas with grammar schools; or in the speech last week from her own Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in which he stated bluntly, with evidence, that the gap in attainment between the best and worst off children is much higher in selective schools. Indeed, as with private education, the only honest and logical argument for grammar schools is the belief that we should have elites who do better at the expense of the rest.
Have you ever heard a Tory saying ‘it is time to bring back secondary moderns’? No. Yet for all the language of giving parents what they want, promoting excellence, giving poorer kids the chance to climb the ladder, that is what this policy is about. It would be easier to respect them if they just admitted it.