Steve Richards: The last thing Labour needs is the Tories supporting Blair on education

Cameron is the first Tory to see the advantage of backing Blair when he's at odds with his party
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The Independent Online

The most vivid example of the changes arose on yesterday's Today programme. The peak slot consisted of two interviews relating to the Government's latest proposals for secondary schools. The first interview was with the former Education Secretary Estelle Morris.

Lady Morris, as she now is, is no throwback to some mythical old Labour past. She worked closely with David Blunkett during Labour's early years in power and in her mild-mannered way challenged the teachers' unions on several fronts. Even so she expressed some concerns about the Government's latest proposals. In particular she worried that while individual schools acquired more autonomy, the worst would sink further. This is also a concern of several cabinet ministers including the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.

Part of the danger for the Government is over the way this internal debate is perceived: Once more crusading, enlightened modernisers are posed against old Labour defending outdated local education authorities. In reality the questions of the internal dissenters are subtler and entirely legitimate, focusing on the possible iniquitous consequences arising from the end of local strategic planning.

Ms Morris was followed on the Today programme by David Cameron who, as well as being the likely next leader of the Conservative party, is the Shadow Education spokesman. Mr Cameron welcomed the Government's proposals with enthusiasm. He was delighted by the free-for-all that might follow. His only concern was whether Tony Blair's cabinet and party would let him carry through the reforms. He made it clear that if Mr Blair was blocked by those old Labour dinosaurs, John Prescott and Gordon Brown, it would fall on the Conservative party to carry out the task.

There are important differences between the Government and Mr Cameron's approach, but the aspirant Conservative leader has seized the broader political initiative. He is the first senior Tory to recognise that it is to the Conservatives' advantage to support Mr Blair when he is at odds with his party and most of those on the centre left.

Mr Cameron's strategic positioning has several consequences, all of them potentially fatal for the government if it is misguided enough to give him the political space. Most dangerously it places the battle for the centre ground firmly on the right of the political spectrum. In effect Mr Cameron is stating: Conservatives approve of a market in schools. As true believers we can do it better.

The mad choreography of this bleak debate places moderate left-of-centre reformers in an old Labour wilderness. Equally damaging for the Government, the revolutionary headlines accompanying the latest White Paper imply that the past eight years have been wasted. As Mr Cameron put it: "What's the Government been doing since 1997 if only now it has discovered we were right all along?"

The broader response from arch-Blairites to Mr Cameron's astute positioning is illuminating. In The Independent last week Alan Milburn argued that a more centrist Conservative Party meant New Labour must intensify the pace of reform. Mr Milburn suggested that if they failed to move fast the Conservatives would get there first.

In fairness to Mr Milburn this is not a matter for him of crude pragmatism. Hearing him put the case for markets in public services and a smaller state is an almost mesmerising experience. He is a true believer. Mr Milburn once worked in a bookshop selling revolutionary left-wing pamphlets. The revolutionary ardour is still with him. The sincerity of Mr Milburn's argument should not obscure the defeatist message: the Labour Government must move to the right or the Conservatives will win.

The opposite is the case. If Labour moves further to the right it will lead to terminal tensions and allow Conservatives to argue that voters should support the genuine centre-right party.

The tragedy of the latest political choreography is that some of the danger for the Government arises from the presentational emphasis. The sound of trumpets blaring accompanies most of its initiatives. One way or another there is a revolution most days of the week. Today is the turn of schools to undergo another revolution, although they have had several already, or rather have been subjected to proposals that were hailed as revolutionary. Thankfully the latest proposals are not as revolutionary as their billing suggests.

There is a single overwhelming reason for this and one that ministers should stress at every opportunity. All state schools will be told they must abide by a code on admissions that effectively rules out selection. The proposals in today's White Paper permit a diversity of suppliers, but apparently none of them will be allowed to pluck out the most talented kids and let the other schools deal with those deemed to have lesser abilities.

Other elements of the Government's White Paper are more contradictory. Ministers say they want to introduce the "ethos" of private schools into the state sector. Their motives are noble. With the antennae of a parent that used to live in Islington Mr Blair knows the dangers of middle-class parents leaving the state system. But the reasons for the desertion are not obviously addressed by the latest proposals.

Those parents that pay for private schools are attracted by smaller class sizes and pupils that are selected. With good cause the Government rules out selection, while smaller classes can be addressed only by additional funding. In terms of size the Government appears to moving in the opposite direction. It calls for good schools to take over failing schools. But that would mean good schools becoming twice the size, at which point they would be much less appealing to parents. The good schools risk becoming huge, bad ones.

There are important differences between the Government's approach and that of the Conservatives. Mr Cameron supports the iniquities of selection. In addition he has yet to explain how he would match the Government's investment with the promise of tax cuts. It remains a supreme achievement of this Government that at a time when other equivalent countries are cutting back it has invested hugely in schools. In Mr Blair's speech yesterday, a more reasoned address than the advanced billing, he listed some of the Government's previous successes.

But how many voters will notice when another apparently revolutionary set of proposals for schools is proclaimed today? If Mr Cameron is allowed to pop up too often with a message of support for the Government there will be only one loser. It will not be Mr Cameron.