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7 March 2017updated 24 Mar 2017 2:24pm

Will Tory rebels thwart Theresa May’s new grammar schools?

Conservative MPs are hostile enough for there to be no guarantee of this divisive proposal's success.

By Patrick Maguire

Good morning. So much for those clichés about Spreadsheet Phil and his quiet, no-nonsense budget. Today’s papers reveal the government will tomorrow make good on one of its most contentious threats: lifting the ban on new grammar schools.

It’s big news: the Mail, Telegraph, Guardian, and even the Metro splash on the announcement that the chancellor will make £320m available for 140 new free schools, which will, for the first time, be allowed to impose academic selection (though not all are expected to do so). By way of a pre-emptive rebuttal to the inevitable outcry that these new institutions – mostly slated to open after 2020 – will disproportionately benefit the sharp-elbowed middles classes, the Chancellor is also set to announce free public transport for the poorest children on the roll.

The timing of this headline-grabbing announcement represents, among other things, a new attempt from Number 10 to reassert May’s domestic vision at a time when Brexit is occupying most of her attention and energy. But explosive though this story’s impact on the news cycle may be, it would be premature to declare that manoeuvre a success.

Predictably, the prospect of new grammars has set May on collision course with the teaching unions, who have made their objections to this policy firmly and abundantly clear (Labour and the Lib Dems are also opposed). The Association of Teachers and Lecturers tells the Guardian in no uncertain terms that the move to throw money at new free and grammar schools is a “mistake” at a time when other schools in the state sector are struggling for funding. We can expect too a high-profile intervention from the ASCL headteachers’ union chief Geoff Barton, an unfancied candidate who won last month’s election on an anti-grammars ticket.

Though new grammars might distract the public gaze away from May’s looming date with Article 50 destiny, Brexit may well have a bigger impact on this policy than one would first assume. 

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There are a significant enough number of Conservative MPs who have publicly stated that they are not yet convinced by the case for new grammars – among them arch rebels Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan – for there to be no guarantee of this divisive proposal’s success. As these Tory Remainers’ guerrilla campaign shows, the rebels have no qualms with taking the fight to their unclubbable leader. Could they throw a spanner in the works by doing so again?