Schoolboy error

Were the Cameroons caught off guard, or was this a clever plan?

Obviously no one told the shadow education secretary about the plan to keep the collective Conservative head down during the six-week Brown coronation. No, David Willetts had his own "Gerald Ratner moment" when he suggested that grammar schools are not part of the future. To the Tory grass roots this was as explosive as Baroness Noakes of the Conservative Women's Organisation sounding the death knell for coffee mornings and home-made jam.

A press officer admits he texted his shadow cabinet charge to check he had heard correctly, concerned that he had drunk too many pints of cloudy London Pride in the Red Lion the night before. The reply he received: "Bloody nightmare, big mistake." Cue fury. David Davis got all petulant; Liam Fox nearly got all shouty and Scottish, but thought better of it. There were even rumours that Willetts's mission was deliberately to provoke the old guard.

After the story broke on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the leadership began to realise all was not well. A senior aide, still rather shaken by the past week, says: "It took the high command by surprise - to put it lightly. It was total lambs to the slaughter; there was absolutely no perception that this was going to be quite so volatile."

The people around David Cameron are some of the cleverest scholars about (and no, they did not all go to Eton). On this issue, however, it seems they took their eye off the ball. A Cameron source says: "We had no idea how the newspapers were going to spin this. When all hell broke loose we decided on day one that we were just going to tough it out; we have continued with that game plan." Most important was a shadow cabinet meeting. William Hague chaired it in the leader's absence (he was - yes - at a school) and the Willetts speech was on the agenda. Cheryl Gillan, David Lidington and Davis were among those who voiced an opinion and were not impressed by what they heard. The only person who supported Willetts openly was Patrick McLoughlin, the chief whip.

The next day, an exhausted junior minister described a gathering of the 1922 Committee as "the worst meeting I have been to: bloodshed, wall-to-wall hostility. It was reminiscent of a particularly gory scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." George Bridges of the Conservative Research Department chaired a conference call, where parliamentary candidates are given the chance to ask what the party is doing at Westminster. Willetts was instructed to account for himself and justify the policy. He did not receive an easy ride. Behind the scenes, Mark Field, MP for Westminster, was livid and wrote a piece for the Conservative Home website chastising Willetts. This has prompted a Facebook group called "Mark Field for Education Secretary!". Insiders reckon he has been waiting for this kind of opportunity to position himself as an alternative moderniser.

Chicken or egg?

While everyone in the Conservative Party is trading insults about what happened, one question remains unanswered. What came first? The never-ending Cameroon desire to appear counter-intuitive (the chicken)? Or the conviction that decades of the Tory selective tradition was actually wrong (the egg)? It would have been helpful, and good manners, for those in the know to have tipped off those most affected by Willetts's comments, such as Kent County Council, a Tory-controlled authority with the most grammar schools in England. The speech came as a complete surprise to Paul Carter, Kent's leader. After issuing a swift press release, Carter spent days reassuring the Kent masses they were not going to lose their grammars.

It took Cameron to emerge from a Hull classroom and remind everyone that the party was not closing any existing grammar schools and that neither Margaret Thatcher nor John Major built a single one in 18 years. He pointed out that not one MP had campaigned for another grammar to be built, and that nothing really had changed. At a press conference, Cameron declared: "This isn't a new policy, it's a pointless debate." He accused a journalist who had played "the Eton card" of being "backward-looking, class-ridden and out of touch". He went on to announce seven specific steps to address the NHS crisis.

That the chief of staff to Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, is on holiday suggests that the announcement may have been brought forward. Unfortunately, Lansley's well-thought-out proposals received zero press coverage. This is soul-destroying for the astute team which put them together. What a waste.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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