What Gove's meetings with Murdoch tell us

Is News Corp looking to set up its own free schools?

Of all the meetings that cabinet ministers had with News International executives (on average, a member of the cabinet met a Murdoch executive every three days), it is Michael Gove's that are the most eye catching. The Education Secretary listed 11 meetings at which executives from the company were present, including seven with Rupert Murdoch. Gove met the News Corp head more times than any other minister and had dinner with him twice last month.

Here's the full list:

19 May 2010 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus more than ten others. Dinner and general discussion.

10 June 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

17 June 2010 News International executives and senior editors, including Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), and Rebekah Brooks (News International). Lunch and general discussion.

21 October 2010 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International), James Harding (The Times), Dominic Mohan (The Sun), James Murdoch (News Corporation), Colin Myler (News of the World), John Witherow (Sunday Times) plus more than ten others. Dinner after Centre for Policy Studies lecture.

30 November 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International), Will Lewis (News International), James Harding (The Times). Academy visit.

17 December 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International) plus several others. Social.

25 - 28 January 2011 Joel Klein (now News Corporation, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and Assistant Attorney General to President Clinton), visiting UK as guest of DfE to explain and discuss US education policy success, including large conference platform and assorted dinners with senior figures from education and the media, including Rupert Murdoch. Including private and public events

31 January 2011 Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus several others. Dinner hosted by Academy sponsor Charles Dunstone.

19 May 2011 James Harding (The Times), Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), James Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International). Breakfast and general discussion.

16 June 2011 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation) plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

26 June 2011 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

It all suggests, as Andy Burnham said, a rather strange set of priorities. The shadow education secretary noted that in his first seven months, Gove "didn't manage to visit a single sixth form college, further education college or special school."

So, what's the explanation? Gove is, of course, a former Times journalist, who, we know from the register of members' interests, received £5,000 a month for his weekly column. He is also due to write a biography of Viscount Bolingbroke for the Murdoch-owned Harper Collins. Then there's his friendship with Murdoch consigliere Joel Klein (he sat next to Wendi Deng at the select committee hearing), the former chancellor of the New York department of education, who is now the head of News Corp's new "management and standards committee" and the CEO of its growing education division. Significantly, it was Klein's charter schools that served as one of the key inspirations for Gove's "free schools" project.

A spokesman for Gove said: "He's known Rupert Murdoch for over a decade. He did not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs and isn't at all embarrassed about his meetings, most of which have been about education which is his job."

The News Corp head, it seems, is taking an increasing interest in the subject. At last month's Times CEO summit (£) he called for all pupils to be provided with tablet computers, adding that he would be "thrilled" if 10 per cent of News Corp's revenues came from education in the next five years. Wireless Generation, an education technology company recently acquired by Murdoch for $360m, was awarded a a $27 million no-bid contract by the New York education department.

It begs the question of whether News Corp is looking to set up its own free schools. In response to such a query, Times columnist and executive editor Daniel Finkelstein tweeted:

News Corp is indeed taking an interest in the creation of new schools. That is precisely what mtgs were about!

It's not hard to see why the company is "taking an interest", particularly if the schools are eventually allowed to make a profit. But, to coin a phrase, would News Corp really be considered a "fit and proper" company to run a school?

Even if the company's ambitions are limited to digital learning systems and other services, it could find itself under scrutiny. In the wake of the hacking scandal, the NY education department is under pressure to revoke the $27 million contract it awarded to Wireless Generation. Mark Johnson, a spokesman for controller Thomas DiNapoli, has announced that the scandal will be taken into account in the state review process for the contract. But will Gove allow News Corp to make similar inroads into English education?

Update: The Sun's former political editor George Pascoe Watson (now a partner at Portland Communications) notes on Twitter: "[I]s News Corp looking to set up its own free schools?>The Sun+Civitas already have done."

A glance at the Civitas website shows that the Sun funds a Saturday school at the Ensign Youth Club in Wapping.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.