The Sketch: Simon Carr

A generic answer to suit all those universally predictable questions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Estelle Morris, the promoter of something called "generic leadership", is something of a generic leader herself. So, here's a generic answer she can use for any question, from disruptive pupils, to massive adult illiteracy, to whether teachers should be armed.

"The important thing is three things. Diversity. Resources. A lack of complacency. A total transformation of secondary education. It's too easy to forget that enormous progress has been made waiting for the interim report. Yes, and actually this is a cause for celebration the whole House welcomes, the passported funds for pathfinder pilots to access the appropriate skilling models with the passion, determination and sheer mentoring dedication of what I say is the finest teaching profession in the world."

Labour's Gordon Prentice, cool as a blade, rose to start day two of the backbench intifada.

He noted a government proposal to outsource the management of school departments to local companies. This "rather extreme" policy was announced first in the Financial Times. Whose idea was it, Mr Prentice asked the minister. Where had it come from, who proposed it, and who authorised it? He was on the party's national policy forum (elected by his peers in a secret ballot) and the first he'd known of it was when he opened the paper.

It was, in the way of these things, a scything question. Ms Morris rose with difficulty because she hadn't a leg to stand on.

Her under secretary Margaret Hodge chuckled away roguishly, too thick, perhaps, to realise what was happening. Ms Morris stuttered her way through a generic answer. It was quite a good generic answer, even though it lacked the gritty specificity of the generic answer above. Of course it also lacked any reference to the question.

The mood on the back benches continues to coalesce. How will Tony Blair secure consensus for reform in the vast apparatus of the public service when he can't secure consensus in his own party?

Mark Fisher was an arts minister in the last parliament. He sits on the third bench back with the globular solidity of a handsome piece of sculpture. An early Henry Moore, perhaps. Mild-mannered and softly spoken, he appears in the Commons in his secret identity. Behind the scenes he was the dynamic founding spirit of Parliament First, a loose affiliation of senior backbenchers from all parties whose mission it is to restore the Commons to the centre of national life.

He pursued the Prentice point by asking Robin "The Goblin" Cook: "Will he do all he can to persuade the Government to make a principled stand and, as a matter of course, always bring initiatives and statements to this chamber first?" The leader of the House told us: "I'm all in favour of principled stands."

We laughed like cats. "We will seek to make sure that, where appropriate, statements are made to the House." That's as close to "get bent" as an ex-foreign secretary can come. So it's war.

But the Government has been rattled. The Goblin casually revealed yesterday the controversial inspections of disabled people would not apply to existing beneficiaries.

In the last parliament Labour thought the unthinkable for, ooh, months before thinking again. On disability inspections it did the undoable, and undid it instantly.

Patsies, sycophants and quick-start careerists will find themselves in demand over the summer. Managers are going to have to stack the standing committees to get their business through.

But it's also true that the Government has a new weapon in its arsenal. It can deem a Bill to have passed all its committee stages whether it has or not.

But that's insane, you want to say. Perhaps. But it is the Government and has the power. The power to bend reality itself. Maybe the Prentice Tendency and Parliament First can bend it back again.

Comments