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12 September 2016

Theresa May might not want an early election, but she might need one

The new parliamentary session is just a week old, and there is already trouble ahead. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May doesn’t want an early election – or, at least, that’s the line that’s being briefed hard out of Downing Street.  

The case against is fairly persuasive: voters have, in just two years, been asked to vote in a general election, a series of local and devolved contests, and lastly a referendum.  People are tired of politics and part of May’s appeal is in presenting a moment of relative calm after a run of chaos. And there is a feeling in parts of the government that the good economic news is because markets are expecting a relatively soft Brexit, and that the heat of an election campaign might see rising uncertainty and with it bad economic figures at the worst possible time.

The ripe fruit of the boundary review, which is expected to further entrench the Conservative position in Parliament, also makes waiting until after 2018 an attractive prospect. 

As an aside, it’s worth noting the speed – and lack of contradictory briefing  – with which Number 10 has squashed the idea of a snap election. The contrast with the faffing around Gordon Brown’s non-election is marked and attests to the surprisingly smooth running of May’s Downing Street, much to the surprise of some civil servants, who were perplexed and worried that the system of having joint chiefs of staff in the shape of Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy would lead to dysfunction, just as the joint leadership of Jeremy Heywood and Stephen Carter in Brown’s Downing Street did.

But the government only has a majority of 12 and the government already has a series of battles ahead.

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To allow the creation of new grammar schools, she will have to repeal the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, passed by Labour to outlaw the creation of new grammar schools. But in order to reorient the focus of new grammar schools on the working class, she will also have to pass new legislation to enforce the obligation of new and existing grammars to do more to improve social diversity of their intake, and to force private schools to do more to justify their charitable status and to increase the responsibilities of universities to set up and support schools.

All four aspects will attract the ire of different groups in the Conservative party. The anti-grammar caucus, of whom Nicky Morgan, the former Education Secretary, is the most senior figure to speak out publicly against the measure, will likely vote against or at least seek to significantly amend away any attempt to allow the creation of new grammars.

But with the exception of Morgan, for the most part, Conservative sceptics of the scheme have kept silent, at least in private and at least for now. Michael Gove, in a remarkable U-Turn, is expected to welcome the plans.   

But it’s early days and that Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted and in many ways the exemplar of the Adonis-Gove agenda of school reforms is already making noise is only going to increase May’s parliamentary difficulties from this quarter.

Then there are the parts that Labour will like but may create problems elsewhere – giving greater civic (that’s “greater” spelt “any”) obligations to private schools are being privately criticised though no-one is talking about voting against or amending those parts – yet. (That’s the other thing – all these things are cumulative. The longer one part of the bill is being resisted by one part of the educational establishment, the longer another one has to get working as well.)

Of course, any lost votes on private schooling should be made up for by Labour MPs but the temptation for the Labour leadership to create mischief in the Tory ranks will likely prove too big an opportunity to miss.

Of course, whatever happens with schools is win-win for Downing Street. Either they get a policy through which they genuinely believe in or they are defeated on an issue on which they are on the side of voters. (That people like grammar schools a lot more with three decades of distance between them than they did when they first started being closed also highlights that this may well be one of those times when to lose is to win.)

But any new legislation on grammars is dead on arrival in the House of Lords, though there is a lively debate about whether the government can use the Parliament Act to override that. The last usage in 2004, to enforce the ban on foxhunting, had a fairly thin basis in Labour’s 2001 manifesto, which simply pledged to bring the issue to a conclusion.  

And education is not the only area of potential unrest. Big changes are coming to the Dfid policy brief, which will be the subject of serious campaigns outside parliament and internal opposition with the Conservative party. Once again, the Lords will prove a hostile audience to any such measures.

Elsewhere, the sugar tax may have the support of several big-name celebrities outside Westminster as well as the medical establishment, but libertarian backbenchers in the Commons may yet wreck it. (You’d expect Labour votes to carry it, but again, the temptation to cause havoc in the Tory party will be strong.)

And again, none of these are bad measures, politically, to be defeated on. The public like the sugar tax, are generally supportive of grammar schools, and are sympathetic to diverting money away from the world’s poorest. Going to the country as a result of defeats on those issues wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Theresa May – and it’s worth noting that they are all issues that play well with voters who backed Ukip at the last election.  

And while that may be a calculation the government doesn’t wish to make, that just a week into the parliamentary session we can already see a series of pitfalls for the government highlights that whether or not the government wants an early election, they may find themselves fighting one sooner rather than later.

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