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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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