Grammar School fury won't go away

I have yet to find a Conservative MP, London Assembly member, Councillor, or activist who thinks Mr

I recently spent a very pleasant evening dining with that most charming and elegant hostess, Raine, Countess Spencer who rather like her late Mother Dame Barbara Cartland, is fast becoming a National treasure.

In her day Raine was a formidable presence on the London Political scene serving on the London County Council and the GLC and has lost none of her insight or indeed her strong Conservative beliefs. I felt rather sorry for one of my fellow guests, the equally charming and very smooth Italian Ambassador Giancarlo Aragona, with his attractive English wife (why do so many Ambassadors have foreign wives?) who, when the Ladies withdrew after dinner, (Raine does these things properly) was forced to defend our retiring Prime Minister Tony Blair from the rest of the male guests.

Next month in Hampstead Garden Suburb a blue plaque will be unveiled to Harold Wilson, now an almost entirely forgotten prime minster whom most Tesco shoppers would struggle to name. My theory was that in 20 year's time Blair will join Wilson in the remainder bin of political biographies.

Another of my fellow guests, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and actor Julian Fellows assured the Ambassador that David Cameron would win the next General Election and was doing a marvellous job however it was a shame that even Mr Cameron could not muster a decent candidate to run for Mayor of London.

I managed to brush off Raine's suggestion that I should run and suggested to Julian that he would be a credible candidate to which his wife, the beautiful Emma said "but darling you have got three Hollywood scripts to write!"

However a week is a long time in Politics, as Wilson once said, and along comes "Dave" Willetts and his statement about Grammar Schools.

As my stomach endured another rather fine dinner, this time given by the outgoing Mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea ("We always expect the Mayor to upgrade the wines in the Royal Borough," the Chief Executive told me), there was only one topic of conversation amongst the London political elite.

The three Conservative front benchers present appeared very sheepish having come hot foot from the explosive meeting of 1922 Committee described in some detail by an outraged backbencher.

Meanwhile the Labour Mayor of Lewisham, the very reasonable Steve Bullock, told me he would never have achieved anything if it was not for his Grammar School education.

The following day, at Westminster Cathedral (attending that other staple event for Politicians , the Memorial Service), one former Lord Mayor of Westminster told me he thought Cameron was going all out to annoy the middle classes and one City Academy Governor told me it was far to early to judge the success or otherwise of Academies.

Certainly that evening as I attended a meeting of the governing Body of my old Grammar School the headmaster, staff and governors (Tory voters to the core) thought Mr Cameron had lost the plot.

I felt rather sorry for my local Member of Parliament and Shadow Cabinet high flyer Theresa Villiers whose excellent speech later that same evening at her Conservative Association AGM before 100 plus Councillors and activists was overshadowed by the overwhelming opposition to Mr Willettts. The ever loyal Theresa did her best to defend her Shadow Cabinet colleague but realised she was on a sticky wicket especially as later on the Agenda was a motion to readopt her as the candidate for the next general election.

I have yet to find a Conservative MP, London Assembly member, Councillor, activist, or Party member who thinks Mr Willetts needed to make the remarks he did or anyone who has forgiven the then Labour Government for abolishing hundreds of inner City Grammar Schools in the 60s and 70s . Now who was prime minister at the time?

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.