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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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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