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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.