Tory MPs turn on Cameron and Osborne

"At the root of much of the catastrophe we have become is George Osborne," says Tory backbencher Nad

Ever since David Cameron entered into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, there have been rumblings of discontent from the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Thus far, it has not spilled out into an all-out rebellion, but it appears that the disasters of last week may have been too much for some. Cameron was reportedly confronted at a private meeting with the powerful 1922 Committee of backbenchers, who told him that fundamental changes were needed for the party to win an outright majority at the next election.

Further to this, several MPs have voiced their concerns to the Daily Telegraph, both on and off the record.

Rather than the standard Euroscepticism and social conservatism, MPs have expressed concern that government policies -- from pasties to jerry cans -- are not being communicated properly to voters, particularly those in marginal seats. They are also calling for a full time Conservative Party chairman appointed from the Commons, as opposed to the current arrangement where two peers share the job.

But what is really interesting is the level of personal criticism of Cameron and George Osborne, who are both lambasted for being out of touch and surrounding themselves with other public schoolboys. This perception is shared by voters -- a ComRes poll this weekend found that 72 per cent of voters believe the government is out of touch -- but coming from within the party, it is particularly damning. The backbenchers have called for a ministerial reshuffle to promote more MPs from working class and northern backgrounds. Mark Pritchard, a member of the 1922 executive, said that the reshuffle should "make the government a little less foie gras and a little more fish and chips", while a senior MP speaking off the record said:

The PM is surrounded by people who look like him, and that is a serious concern. It stops him getting the full range of advice. His reshuffle should ensure that the government looks more like the Conservative Party as a whole.

Osborne, in particular, is under fire, with MPs calling for him to end his dual role as Chancellor and head of Conservative political strategy. It is suggested that doing both roles is undermining his competency in both, allowing careless policies like the new tax on pasties to blow up into national controversies. Backbench MP Nadine Dorries condemned the Chancellor in extraordinarily strong terms:

Many people now look at the Conservative Party and are reeling with the realisation that this modern party is one they don't know, didn't vote for and no longer represents their views. They don't recognise the values, are confused by the policies and repelled by the elitism. At the root of much of the catastrophe we have become is George Osborne. He drives the liberal elite agenda.

Cameron has staked an immense amount on his faith in his friend Osborne, who frequently chairs the No 10 meetings that run the coalition day to day. Downing Street's strategy appears to be to wait it out and weather the storm: a spokesman insisted there would be "no big change" to the way Cameron runs things. And this could well work: as James Kirkup points out, Tony Blair survived a crisis of confidence over fuel, and went onto win the 2001 election. But with the odds stacked against a Tory majority, it is important that, at the very least, Cameron gets his own party on side.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.