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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.