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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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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