Gove contradicts Cameron and says Major was "right" on class

The PM's spokesman said "what counts is not where you come from but where you are going", but Gove says: "He's right. It's an inescapable fact."

David Cameron's spokesman brusquely dismissed John Major's comments on social mobility yesterday, declaring that "what counts is not where you come from but where you are going".

Major told a Conservative association dinner in South Norfolk: "In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking."

But in his response to the former PM, Michael Gove struck a markedly different tone, telling The World At One: "He's right. It's an inescapable fact." 

A fact it is, but one that Gove, the adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger (he was state-educated before winning a scholarship to the private Robert Gordon's College), is more comfortable acknowledging than Cameron. In that regard, it's worth highlighting a notable passage in Rachel Sylvester's fine column on Major and Cameron today: "To the frustration of other senior Tories, including Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have not done nearly enough since 2010 to counter the prejudice that the Conservatives are on the side of the few rather than the many. Indeed they have reinforced it by cutting the top rate of tax for the wealthiest, a deeply damaging symbolic change, while reducing benefits for the poor."

The Tories' blue collar modernisers were dismayed when the Tories' only response to Ed Miliband's living wage plans was to (falsely) claim that they would increase government borrowing. Robert Halfon (who recently argued on The Staggers in favour an energy windfall tax) warned: "We mustn't make the same mistake the Conservatives made ten years ago in opposing the minimum wage. We mustn’t get ourselves in the position of again being against this. That would be a disaster for the party." 

In a piece for the NS in August, Guy Opperman similarly argued: "Britain is a country in which some workers earn so little that the government has to step in and provide aid. That is the system of tax credits we have; a subsidy by any other name and a £4bn one at that. How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full-time job not to pay enough to live on? The living wage isn’t just a wonkish idea – it’s the political world catching up with many Britons’ reality...It may just be the old socialist in me but when did it become a hindrance rather than a duty for a business to look after its employees?"

Rumours persist that the government will eventually announce plans for a significant increase in the minimum wage, but with the election now less than 18 months away, the Tories are short of time to detoxify their brand.

Education Secretary Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.