David Cameron arrives at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories’ lack of discipline is a symptom of their unresolved identity crisis

The awareness that the party’s contradictions will not be resolved by Cameron explains the yearning for a new chieftain.  

The 11th commandment, according to Ronald Reagan, was: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Invited to attack a colleague, the US president would cite this injunction and politely decline.

Reagan’s stance was not just good manners but good politics. As pollsters often attest, voters are repelled by divided parties. When politicians appear more focused on fighting each other than their opponents, the result is invariably defeat.

It is a lesson that the Tories need to learn again. This summer, there has been a vintage outbreak of blue-on-blue warfare. When Conservatives briefed against Sayeeda Warsi after her principled resignation over Gaza and she replied by denouncing the “public school” clique around David Cameron, they all violated Reagan’s commandment.

They also flouted Lynton Crosby’s advice. When the Conservatives’ election campaign manager addressed Tory MPs after his appointment, he warned them that division would prove fatal to their election chances and that they needed to decide whether they wanted to be “commentators” or “participants”. The Tories at present have a surfeit of the former and a dearth of the latter.

Worse, just as they have lost their discipline, Labour and the Lib Dems seem to have regained theirs. Both parties succumbed to infighting after their sub-par performances in the local and European elections. Labour’s shadow cabinet ministers entered into a blame game over the party’s campaign, while the Lib Dems publicly flirted with regicide. Yet both have since recovered their composure.

After last year’s “summer of silence” (in the words of a shadow minister), Labour has scheduled at least one shadow cabinet speech or intervention for each day of recess. It has worked. The attack grid has filled the vacuum that was occupied last year by backbench malcontents. “There’s no ‘Labour in crisis’ narrative and that’s made it harder for us,” one Tory MP admits. There are still significant numbers of MPs on the opposition side who believe that their party is heading for defeat, as Diane Abbott recently told a private meeting. But her comments, reported on the same day as Warsi’s resignation, went largely unnoticed in Westminster.

The Lib Dems’ position is no better than it was several months ago, with the party’s poll ratings still stuck in single figures. But there are no calls for Clegg to be replaced as leader, or for the party to withdraw from the coalition. The mood among the Lib Dems is one of resignation. There is a stoical acceptance that some MPs, particularly those in Labour-facing seats, are destined for defeat whatever they now say or do. The hope remains that the party will survive in government through another hung parliament, although an increasing number doubt Clegg’s ability to stay on in such circumstances. “Someone will have to pay a price if we lose more than 20 MPs,” one Lib Dem says. Another worries about “legitimacy issues” if the party wins fewer votes than Ukip.

The ructions on the Tory side reflect Cameron’s diminishing authority. When Warsi said it was not possible for the Conservatives to win a majority at the general election, owing to their failure to improve their standing among ethnic minorities (just 16 per cent of whom voted for the party in 2010), it was notable how few disputed her psephology. “We’ll struggle to hold most of our marginals against Labour, let alone win seats off them,” a Tory MP tells me.

The return of economic growth has not yet resulted in the polling dividend that some expected. One possible explanation, as private polling by Labour shows, is that as the recovery has accelerated, voters have become more concerned with issues such as living standards (on which Labour leads) and less concerned with challenges such as the deficit (on which the Tories lead).

Whether or not the Conservatives manage to cling on as the largest single party, it is hard to find a Tory who believes that Cameron either would or could serve a full second term. The Prime Minister, who will have been leader of his party for ten years by next December, is expected to depart after the in/out European Union referendum scheduled for 2017.

The result is that all Tories are anticipating the AD (After Dave) era. Confirmation of Boris Johnson’s planned return to the House of Commons has concentrated minds on the leadership contest to come. Of the current cabinet, George Osborne and Theresa May are expected to stand, with Liam Fox or Owen Paterson representing the revanchist right. This autumn’s conference is now destined to be a beauty parade of alternative leaders. For the contenders, the danger, or temptation, of what David Miliband once referred to as a “Heseltine moment” will be great.

Overriding these personalities is the Conservatives’ continuing identity crisis. All political parties are coalitions but the Tories’ divisions are of a different order. The party contains some of the most socially liberal MPs and some of the most socially conservative; some of the most interventionist and some of the most isolationist. It is a mark of the Conservatives’ confusion that they have anointed Johnson, a libertarian supporter of equal marriage and one of the few unambiguously pro-immigration politicians, as their secret weapon against Ukip. The awareness that these ironies and contradictions will not be resolved by Cameron explains the yearning for a new chieftain.  

On one point, most Conservatives can still agree: it is better to win than to lose. There is genuine fear of what a Miliband government would mean for the country in a way there never was under the accommodationist Blair. Victory for Labour would end the laissez-faire consensus that they continue to cherish. To avert this outcome, the Tories need to remember: a party that appears to be preparing for defeat is usually rewarded with it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”