Liberal Democrat activists revolt against free schools

Proof that the Lib Dems and the Tories remain two very different tribes.

Lib Dem activists have flexed their muscles and passed a motion opposing the coalition's free schools agenda and the expansion of city academies. As a new YouGov poll showed that the majority (65 per cent) of party members consider themselves left-wing, it was a reminder that few Lib Dem activists approve of the government's reform plans.

The vote is largely symbolic, as the Academies Bill has already been passed by parliament, but it's a warning that the Lib Dem grass roots will do all they can to block "free schools" on the ground.

Speaking for the party leadership (Nick Clegg gave the debate a miss), Sarah Teather may have attacked plans for a boycott as "illiberal" (about the worst charge in the Lib Dem lexicon), but her appeal largely fell on deaf ears.

The lightning speed with which Michael Gove piloted the bill through parliament ("with a speed and urgency normally reserved for anti-terrorist legislation", said the Lib Dem councillor Peter Downes) offended many, but there was also a more profound critique of Gove's masterplan at work here.

Downes warned that free schools presented "a threat to the stability, fairness, viability of our educational system", and lambasted the idea "that the principles of the marketplace can be applied to state-funded education".

The defeat isn't significant enough to spoil Clegg's big day, but here, if needed, was proof that the Lib Dems and the Tories remain two very different tribes.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

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