Theresa May addresses The College of Policing Conference on October 24, 2013 in Bramshill. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Gove-May spat is a gift for Labour

The Home Secretary is now echoing the concerns raised for months by the opposition. 

The Queen's Speech is a moment when the government seeks to resonate unity and competence. In their joint statement on the occasion, David Cameron and Nick Clegg declare: "It is easy to forget when we first came together in the national interest just how sceptical people were about how long the Coalition could last and how much change we could effect. Four years on, our parties are still governing together and still taking bold steps. Four years on, no one can deny the progress we have made. The deficit down by a third; our economy one of the fastest-growing in the developed world; more than 1.5 million more people in work – and more people in work than ever before; a welfare system that ensures work pays; more than 1 million new apprentices; taxes cut; inequality declining and fewer children attending failing schools."

But while the Tories and the Lib Dems are at one today, it's a blue-on-blue skirmish that has spoiled Cameron's morning. Today's Times reveals that Theresa May has accused Michael Gove of failing to act on warnings that Islamist extremists were infiltrating schools in Birmingham (the alleged "Trojan Horse" plot). In a letter leaked to the paper (and now published in full by the government), May asks of Gove: 

How did it come to pass, for example, that one of the governors at Park View was the chairman of the education committee of the Muslim Council of Britain?” she wrote.

Is it true that Birmingham City Council was warned about these allegations in 2008? Is it true that the Department for Education was warned in 2010? If so, why did nobody act?

I am aware that several investigations are still ongoing and those investigations are yet to conclude. But it is clear to me that we will need to take clear action to improve the quality of staffing and governance if we are to prevent extremism in schools.

A Home Office source adds: "Why is the DfE wanting to blame other people for information they had in 2010? Lord knows what more they have overlooked on the subject of the protection of kids in state schools? It scares me."

It is, to put it mildly, a gift to Labour. Not just because public infighting between ministers is never healthy for a government, but because shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has been asking precisely these questions of Gove for months. In his most recent letter to the Education Secretary, he wrote:

"I write following reports that the highly respected headteacher of Queensbridge School, Tim Boyes, warned a member of your ministerial team in December 2010 about efforts by radical Muslim hardliners to take control of schools in Birmingham."

And added: "If no action was taken and you were not informed can you explain why not?

  • What assurances can you give that other warnings have not been ignored?
  • Do you now accept that there is a lack of local oversight in our school system that means an increasing number of problems are going unnoticed?
  • What actions will you be taking to monitor and respond to fragile schools, whether in relation to governance, standards or financial probity?

"These are very serious allegations coming from a senior and highly respected headteacher. The failure to act will undermine the confidence of other heads to raise concerns with ministers. It is not acceptable for headteachers in schools in our country to become the target for radical hardliners wanting to infiltrate our school system."

That May's identical warnings have now been made public means Gove, whose star has waned in the last year, now faces a war on two fronts. 

Here's Hunt's statement from this morning: 

"Instead of ministers rowing, we need leadership on how we confront the very serious and worrying reports about Birmingham schools.

"Michael Gove has failed to act on the early warning signs to prevent the sort of situation we are seeing in schools in Birmingham. Labour will introduce new Directors of School Standards to monitor weak governance and under-performance in our schools.

"But by refusing to act, Michael Gove is paving the way for more fragile schools to run into trouble."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.