Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting on February 4 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Free schools have become a bad news story for the Tories

The combined attacks by the Lib Dems and Labour are further weakening public support for Gove's project. 

After David Laws's thinly-disguised sally against Michael Gove at the weekend, today brings fire from another wing of the government. The Guardian reports that the Treasury (or at least the yellow half of it) has ordered Gove to bring the budget for free schools "back under control". This after he was accused of raiding £400m from the Basic Needs budget for primary school places to fund his flagship programme. Once viewed as the height of Tory-Lib Dem cooperation, education has become a central point of antagonism.

The row over funding is the third significant disagreement between the coalition parties in this area in recent months. Last October, Nick Clegg denounced Gove as an ideologue for allowing the permanent use of unqualified teachers in free schools and academies (coinciding with the row over the Al-Madinah institution). Then in February, Laws argued that Ofsted should be given new powers to inspect academy chains having criticised the Education Secretary's decision to dismiss Labour peer Sally Morgan as the organisation's head. Now, concerned by the continuing primary school places crisis, the Lib Dems question Gove's funding priorities. 

The result is that free schools, regarded by many Tories as the coalition's greatest achievement, have become a bad news story for the government. When the coalition was first formed, Labour frequently complained about the "two-against-one" dynamic that saw the Conservatives and the Lib Dems unite to trash their economic record. In the case of education, the same force is now pulling against the Tories. Both Labour and the Lib Dems argue for an end to the use of unqualified teachers in state schools, for tougher inspections of academies and for the government to prioritise funding of new primary school places, rather than new free schools (a significant number of which open in areas with a surplus of places). 

Free schools have never been as popular as their admirers in Westminster assume. A recent YouGov survey for the Times found that just 27 per cent support them, with 47 per cent opposed. Sixty six per cent agree with Labour and the Lib Dems that the schools should only be able to employ qualified teachers and 56 per cent believe the national curriculum should be compulsory for all institutions. On the ground, parents are voting with their feet. Research by Labour found that just 49 (28 per cent) of the 174 free schools opened since 2011 reached their capacity for first year intake. 

It would be one thing to lavish state funding on free schools were there an overall surplus of places. But it is another when an extra 240,000 primary school places are needed by this September merely to keep pace with the birth rate. Yet at present, a third of free schools are located in areas without a shortage of places. 

Gove's defence is that the schools offer parents choice in areas where there may no be shortage of places but there is a lack of good schools. As he said last year: "We have more than doubled funding for new school places and we are also setting up great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high quality school places in areas Labour neglected". The Department for Education emphasises that it has provided an additional £5bn to councils to create new places, double the amount spent by the last government over the same period. 

But it is far from clear that this will prove sufficient. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, an executive member of the Local Government Association, has warned, "the process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies." Both Labour and the Lib Dems agree, encouraging voters to do likewise. Just as the economy is coming for the right for the Tories, it seems that education is going wrong. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.