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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left