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.