What’s Gove really hiding?

The government still has every intention of building plenty of schools, so why the masochism?

Michael Gove, let's be honest, has had better weeks. On Monday, in a rip-roaring speech to the Commons, he announced that he was shelving Labour's £55bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Around 700 new school projects are far enough advanced to escape the axe -- but 715 more found out they'd no longer be getting the shiny new buildings they thought they would.

To make matters worse, it turned out that the government was a little hazy about exactly which schools were which. Gove made a grovelling apology, but it hasn't made a dent, and now a formidable coalition of Ed Balls and the teaching unions are planning to protest the cuts in parliament with a "Save Our Schools" rally. Even the odd Tory MP might join them.

The odd thing about all this is that Gove hasn't actually spiked plans to rebuild all those schools at all.

A lot of the cancelled projects, admittedly, aren't now going to happen. Those that do will have to wait for the outcome of another review, and are likely to be a less ambitious than anyone had hoped.

But Gove's team recognises that there are still a lot of dilapidated schools out there (not all of them in BSF, they point out). They also know we're going to need a lot more primary-school places in the near future. The government still has every intention of building plenty of schools. It just wants to find ways of spending less money doing it.

If you don't believe me, look at the figures. The amount saved by scrapping those named BSF projects should be somewhere around £7bn. The total cuts in capital spending unveiled alongside Monday's speech were £169m. If they really weren't planning on building any more schools, the deficit hawks should be shouting that first figure from the rooftops.

So, if it isn't quite the disaster it's been reported as, why isn't Gove saying so? Partly it's a reluctance to get anyone's hopes up (many of those schools, after all, really aren't going to happen). Partly, too, it's because it's not yet clear how much money will be left in the pot once the Treasury has had its say.

Some in the school sector are even speculating that it's a political move, to make Gove look tough now and bountiful later.

But the truth, I suspect, is more prosaic. Gove simply misjudged the gleeful tone of his speech. He spent too much time attacking BSF's failings, and not enough explaining his own government's plans. Worst of all, he forgot that there's no sexier headline than, "Tories cancel children's futures."

Jonn Elledge is a journalist covering politics and the public sector. He is currently editor of EducationInvestor magazine.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war