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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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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