Will the Lib Dems kill Gove's GCSE plans?

Coalition rift opens up as Clegg's party vows to block changes.

There were notably few Lib Dems in the Commons for Michael Gove's emergency statement on scrapping GCSEs, a telling indicator of the party's hostility to the plans. Furious at Gove's failure to consult him on the changes, Nick Clegg interrupted his Rio trip to order Lib Dem officials to condemn the reforms. The resultant statement declared:

The Liberal Democrats are in politics to remove barriers for all children and not to return to the 1950s education system. We want a modern education system for the 21st century not an acceptance of mediocrity. We want a system for the future rather than turning the clock back to the past with a two-tier education system that will let down our kids.

I doubt if these plans were known outside Michael Gove's private office. This looks like an attempt to bounce us – and that is not going to happen. Changes like this have to go through proper government procedures. We were left scrabbling around in the dark.

Lib Dem president Tim Farron, the standard bearer of the party's left, has continued the rearguard action, describing Gove's plans as "madness". Here's his statement in full:

Returning to a two-tier exam system would be madness. The O-level/CSE system was divisive and dumped less academic young people into a second division from which they couldn't escape, providing a fixed limit on the expectations of those young people who were saddled with having to sit the CSE. I say this with some bitterness and personal experience having a couple of CSE's to my name.

By all means, lets look at the GCSE and consider reforms – Michael Gove is perfectly within his rights to do that – but lets kill off immediately any talk of returning to the divisive 2-tier system that Mrs Thatcher wisely ended in the late 80s.

The Lib Dems are on strong ground. As I noted earlier, one searches the Coalition Agreement in vain for a reference to Gove's reforms; the Education Secretary has no mandate. Whether or not his plans fall prey to the "curse of Clegg" has become a key test of Tory supremacy.

Nick Clegg was not consulated on Michael Gove's plans to scrap GCSEs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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