The big surprise in the Conservatives' new line-up

He's a Europhile who didn't back Iain Duncan Smith. Damian Green will make an interesting shadow Education Spokesman, says Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

It's an intriguing appointment. Iain Duncan Smith's elevation of Damian Green to be shadow Education Spokesman highlights the divisions in the Conservative party.

The 45-year-old MP for Ashford was a Michael Portillo and then a Kenneth Clarke supporter during the leadership campaign. A man on the left of the party, he is definitely not one of Duncan Smith's camp. In a Shadow Cabinet where all the top jobs have gone to Eurospectics, he will be one of the few flying the flag for the Europhiles.

Yet, in his new leader, the new Tory education spokesman has someone who has advocated what is seen as a traditionally right-wing approach to education. Damian Green's own record on education – opposing his party's obsession with spending cuts – indicates that he is as left-of-centre Conservative in his thinking on this subject as in his other views. Will this make for happy compromises or unhappy tussles between the Tory education spokesman and his leader?

During his leadership campaign, Iain Duncan Smith advocated a system of "education credits" which, to the education world, looked like vouchers by any other name. Parents should be given credits, he said, to "purchase" a place at the school of their choice if they were dissatisfied with what they had been offered.

The late Sir Keith Joseph, the intellectual guru of the right and an Education Secretary himself in the Eighties, was "intellectually attracted" by the idea of vouchers. However he eventually ruled them out on the grounds that they would be bureaucratically impossible to implement.

In the education world, most teachers' leaders and academics dismiss the idea as right-wing lunacy. They argue that it would create more sink schools and mean that those children who did not have supportive parents would be left to rot. Iain Duncan Smith, during his leadership campaign, insisted that education credits would help to overhaul failing schools. They would have to make themselves appealing to parents to attract cash, he explained.

The Tory leader criticised his party's performance during the general election campaign as follows: "We had nothing to say to the people trapped by appalling schools and poor hospitals in the last election. We have to start pushing forward proposals people can understand."

Damian Green, a former TV producer (BBC Financial Unit and Channel 4 News) and journalist (business news editor, The Times), is no stranger to education. He was, in fact, an assistant spokesman on education and employment during the last parliament. He spoke strongly about the need for Conservatives to "liberate themselves" from the right-wing obsession with reducing government spending and to concentrate on providing the best possible standards in health and education.

During the last parliament, Green and his party sided with the Labour rebels in voting against the Government's policy of ending student grants – an issue which is resurfacing again with the demand last week by university vice-chancellors for the return of some kind of support award for students from low income families. He says now: "There are clearly stresses and strains on students. This, along with teacher shortages and school standards, are things that we are very concerned about."

On education credits, his leader's pet idea, Green comments: "What Iain was looking at was ideas as to how we can raise standards in schools that are struggling. It will be one of a number of ideas floating around which will be put to a policy review."

Despite his left-of-centre Conservatism, he was singled out early in Iain Duncan Smith's campaign as someone likely to survive a cull of the new leader's opponents. Good reason to watch this space with interest, therefore.