The government had been hoping for an autumn of good news. Heading towards the anniversary of Rishi Sunak’s assumption of the premiership, and tipping into an election year, it was aiming to turn the corner and build something to fight for. The loyalists thought this was starting to materialise, with an upward revision to economic data and inflation starting to fall. All this has been upended, however, with the news that our schools are falling down.
The news on Friday (1 September) seemed especially chaotic. Just a week or so before the start of the school year more than a hundred schools (the details of which are still largely unknown) were at risk of collapse. Roofs made of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) had been used for up to double their initial life span and were now unsafe. This will prompt a mad scramble to find alternative accommodation for classes and for the money to fund it. For the government, however, it presents a particularly dangerous narrative that may sink any chance of electoral recovery.
In some ways, the Tories are unlucky to be holding the bag when this hit. The story of Raac is one all too familiar to watchers of UK infrastructure. In the postwar years, things were done on the cheap with the hope that future generations would have more cash when the shortish life-cycles ran out. Then the cheap material became a standard part of quick and easy construction. Subsequent governments held back from the necessary capital spending and tried to kick the can down the road. The Raac problem was never particularly hidden and was explicitly warned about at least as early as 1995. The Conservatives, however, have to be questioned about why, in a decade of power, they failed to anticipate the issue – and this drives a narrative that makes the next election harder for them.
There are decisions from the party that have clearly made this issue worse. Shortly after coming to power, the government scrapped Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. This rolling plan of upgrades would have tackled many of the Raac problems; instead, around 715 school improvements were cancelled. Since then, the government has failed to protect school infrastructure budgets in real terms, seeing fewer works done – including in decisions made by Sunak himself as chancellor. The recent revelations put these calls in sharp relief.
The last 13 years of Tory government have seen perhaps unprecedented policy fluctuation, but this scandal highlights the failure of each direction taken. Under David Cameron, the government came to power with a doctrine of austerity – but this was couched in terms of good husbandry. The theory went that cracking down on profligacy would shore up government finances to focus on what was important. After Brexit, the mood shifted, with a narrative that new dividends could be shovelled into essential spending. Yet neither fully materialised, and big, capital spending was squeezed.
The consequences of this are hitting, and the Conservatives are struggling to find an answer. Even since the story dropped, the response has been poor – with a bizarre video Q&A and an embarrassing hot mic incident from the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, while the PM and others have tried to shift blame on to previous governments. At the same time, it has been unclear where the money for temporary classrooms and long-term repairs will come from, with other bits of the sector likely to lose out as this is prioritised.
A bigger problem for the government is that this story isn’t going to go away. Even if it had all the dynamism in the world, this is a lingering issue. Surveys will take weeks if not months to be completed, with a steady drip-feed of stories about schools being unfit for use. Rebuilding will take years. Over winter, temporary classrooms will freeze and leak. In summer they will overheat. Online teaching will likely exacerbate educational differences between the rich and poor. The issue will be a running sore – prompting more stories about delayed fixes, spiralling costs and, ultimately, failing services.
This isn’t just schools. There are already reports that Raac issues affect other parts of the public estates, including hospitals and courts. The emergency shutdown of classrooms could be repeated in these – throwing up the same questions about Tory cuts and spending plans. The problem will also cause second-order consequences, as justice delays or waiting lists grow off the back of space shortages. It is a story that is likely to run until at least the next election.
This it particularly politically difficult for the Conservatives, as it provides a running narrative in which they are on the back foot. The party wants to fight the next election on the economy, pointing to falling inflation and rising growth, talking up a Rishi miracle and maybe fashioning this into giveaways in a final budget. It also wants to highlight the risk of handing this over to Labour, hence why Greg Hands is waving his “there’s no money left” note at anyone who gets within arms reach of him. This is where the party is most comfortable, but this story could throw the next election into a different light.
Collapsing schools are perhaps the most evocative development of what I have called the Shit State Tories: highlighting the problem of the British public sphere and services becoming increasingly dilapidated, without easy blame shifts such as Covid, strikes or immigration. It helps the next election be framed in a way that is less about the economy and more about the public realm. It becomes a question not of who you think will safeguard the economy in general, but who might restore and rebuild public services. This is a battle Labour should expect to win.
It is also a hard one for the Tories to fight on. The party is instinctively seen as miserly in this area. Beyond that, many of its leading ministers were deeply involved in austerity. The decisions being criticised are not just ones their party made, but which they made. Michael Gove has already said that cancelling Building Schools for the Future was his biggest mistake as education secretary. It becomes hard to deflect when you are the one who made the actual call. More than that, however, the government is led by a spending sceptic.
Despite his name being made in the Covid spending boom, Rishi Sunak is not a man drawn to government largesse. As chancellor he held back from spending on things like school improvements. His cabinet, largely, is an expansion of Treasury thinking, with ministers reticent about big capital investment. He is unwilling to increase spending and is unconvincing about doing so. This makes it hard to win an election when the question in voters’ minds is: “The state is falling down, what are you going to do about it?”
The Raac crisis is perhaps the worst thing that could have hit the Tories as they try to build back some electoral credibility. It is an issue that will continue to outrage people. More than that, however, it drags the public discussion on to the Tories’ biggest area of weakness. Psychologically too it hits them hard. Temporary classrooms are a mental relic of the Major years, and shiny classrooms a sign of Blair’s renewal. This again helps Labour.
Fixing the problem might be hard for Keir Starmer. He remains subject to the same fiscal limitations as the current government. He also remains wary of previous Tory attack lines and is reticent to talk about raising taxes or spending more. But engaging with this stuff should be Labour’s home territory, and its increasing prominence should help it on the path to victory in the next election. For many voters, it is less about the how but more about the who – and this is a battle Labour should naturally do well in. The party’s challenge is building a clear campaign to keep up the moment and focus attention on Tory failings.
Schools falling down is so chaotic it can only be detrimental to the incumbents. This is especially true of a party that has been in power for so long. Blaming previous eras doesn’t work: that simply makes people ask whether your period of rule was ignorant of the problems, or too incompetent to fix them. It’s even stickier when your decisions fed into the issue. Quite simply, through austerity and Brexit, the Tories pushed the line that short-term pain would yield long-term benefits – as time goes on, it becomes harder to explain why that delayed gratification hasn’t come good.
The Conservatives are going to be held to account for the Raac scandal. The public will be perplexed and angry at how something so catastrophic could be happening and will blame the government. This narrative could countervail anything the party wants to say about the economy, and into the sort of territory where Labour would want to fight the next election.
If the Tories still have an electoral hope next year, it lies in convincing an increasingly sceptical public that they can govern well. This means being trusted on the economy but also means being expected to fix faltering public services. Buildings collapsing on your watch after you’ve cut funding is not conducive to that. Nor is garbling the comms afterwards. The Raac crisis should be enough to see the most optimistic Tories start to crumble.