Boris Johnson and George Osborne at the Tate Modern on 20 February, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Boris has outflanked Osborne on the living wage and the top tax rate

The Conservative leadership rival's alternative Budget offers something for the left and the right. 

The next Conservative leadership contest has begun. Not every move that the contenders make should be viewed through this prism. But it is an inescapable reality that one of them will succeed David Cameron before the end of this parliament. 

In the first all-Conservative Budget since November 1996, George Osborne has an opportunity to raise his stock among his party by reducing the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p (as 160 Tory MPs have demanded). The absence of the Liberal Democrats from the government frontbench means that Osborne, one Conservative tells me, has "no excuse not to act". But in his interview with Andrew Marr yesterday, the Chancellor signalled that he does not intend to use his political freedom to cut the top rate on Wednesday. He emphasised that his "priority" was to deliver to "the promises upon which we were elected" (of which a cut in the top rate was not one): a £12,500 personal allowance and a £50,000 40p tax threshold. Osborne appears to have wisely concluded that it would be dangerously incongruous to also reduce taxes for the top 1.5 per cent of earners while austerity (such as tax credit cuts) continues elsewhere. 

The Chancellor was also notably lukewarm towards the argument that more companies should pay the living wage to compensate those whose in-work benefits will be reduced (as former No. 10 adviser Steve Hilton has recently proposed). He said that "the best answer" to this conundrum was to cut taxes and "to make sure your businesses are growing and profitable and that they can pay good salaries". At no point did he endorse the argument made by the left and, increasingly, the right that cheapskate corporations are denying their workers the pay they deserve.

In private meetings, I'm told, Osborne has consistently dismissed those (such as Jo Johnson, the universities minister and the author of the Conservative manifesto) who suggested that the Tories should annex Labour's policy of providing tax breaks to companies who raise salaries to living wage level. To him, this is statist meddling based on the false premise that firms who can afford to pay more aren't. As the Resolution Foundation's Gavin Kelly writes in an essential blog: "Perhaps the biggest misconception is the voguish notion that if tax credits are cut, employers will somehow decide to offer pay rises to fill the gap. This is saloon-bar economics espoused by some on both left and right. The available evidence suggests that the great majority of the gains from tax credits flow through to employees, not employers."

It is significant, then, that Osborne's most formidable rival for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson, has used his pre-Budget Telegraph column to advocate the changes the Chancellor has refused to offer (for now): a cut in the top rate of tax and the expansion of the living wage. The latter is proposed as political cover for the former: "We think of ourselves according to our relationship with others – and it is simply not fair that a Budget should put more disposable income in the pockets of the rich and less disposable income in the pockets of the poor. And that, alas, would be the result if we were to cut top-rate tax and simultaneously to cut in-work benefits without any compensating improvements in pay." Unlike Osborne, the Mayor of London contends that firms are using tax credits to artificially supress wages: "As for low pay, it isn’t a function of market forces. It’s being propped up by the taxpayer. That needs to end. And that means business has got to start paying its people a wage they can live on." 

It is an appealing pitch that offers something to both the right (a cut in the top rate) and the left (the living wage) of the Conservative Party. The Mayor has cast himself as a "one nation" figure more capable of performing the political gymnastics required to deliver free market policies. Unless Osborne surprises on Wednesday, Johnson's alternative Budget will retain political potency. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.”