The blows came thick and fast. When the prime minister woke up yesterday he found that the Sun and the Guardian were both savaging him for his failures on school ‘catching up’ provisions. Generally speaking, if those two papers are cross with you about the same thing, you’ve done something wrong.
The government had offered just £1.4bn in funding, about a tenth of what was recommended. Education adviser Kevan Collins had quit in protest. His resignation letter savaged the government’s record, accusing it of “failing hundreds of thousands of pupils” and making commitments that did not “come close to meeting the scale of the challenge”.
There was a sense of deja-vu. The government found itself subject to the same type of headlines over free school meals, which it resisted twice before capitulating in the face of a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford. Even at the time that seemed an unforced error. “The director of communications said to the prime minister twice: ‘Do not pick a fight with Rashford’,” Dominic Cummings told MPs last week. “The prime minister decided to pick a fight and then surrendered twice.”
In fact education policy in general has been an unmitigated shambles, from the catastrophically inept opening up of schools to the GCSE fiasco. And yet no lessons have been learned.
Behind the scenes, chancellor Rishi Sunak resisted spending the £15 billion recommended by Collins. It’s a counter-productive form of belt-tightening. Even if you can’t find the moral principle to help pupils, predominantly from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been set back in their learning by the pandemic, there is a clear national case to spending money which will pay off later in the form of more productive, financially successful citizens. But that is the kind of long-term thinking which the government is plainly incapable of. Instead, Boris Johnson reportedly went further than Sunak, almost spitefully deciding to sign off on just ten per cent of the required amount.
Why? The government is obsessed with popularity. It’s not hard to see how the decision would play out. The savaging it got over free school meals would surely have made it clear. Why make the same mistake again?
The answer takes us beyond education policy and into a little-discussed Tory split in the new political faultlines.
In their hearts, when you get down to it, the old Tory party is still there. It does not really believe in government spending. It wants to rein in borrowing as soon as possible. This instinct has been concealed by the pandemic, which required huge financial initiatives like furlough. It was further hidden by the rhetoric around ‘levelling up’. But it has not gone away. It’s still there, making precisely these sorts of decisions.
The new big-spending Tory party which hoovers up former Labour voters in northern towns has a disturbing voice in its head, reminding it of its former self. And sometimes, when it is quite alone, and thinks no-one can see, it begins to listen to that voice.
Whenever this voice is spoken out loud, the new Tory alliance shows signs of fracture. After all, restraining spending on disadvantaged schoolchildren is not ‘levelling up’. It is the precise opposite of the principle non-Brexit political goal which the government set itself upon coming to office. Suddenly Tory ministers and the parliamentary party look as if they have very different priorities to the new Red Wall voters they have attracted over to them.
This is why the government scrambles around so desperately for a new culture war. They’ll take anything – free speech on university campuses, National Trust historical reports, boats covered in the Union Jack, the last night of the proms – as long as it focuses debate on cultural issues rather than economic ones.
It’s often a bizarre spectacle. Many of these issues seem so paltry and obscure that you wonder why the government bothers. They’re like a junkie craving that next culture-war hit. Brexit gave them the ultimate high, but they just can’t seem to replicate it. And this is the key to why they do it. The culture war must be kept alive, or else political discussion will return to economics. And if it returns to economics, their new electoral coalition suddenly looks a lot more fragile.
For the time being, these stories quickly wash over. But that will not always remain the case. Eventually, austerity will seduce them. They’ve already laid the ground for it in the Budget. Their heart demands it. Their convictions – long muted by Johnson’s electoral success – will command it. And when they do so, that split will become more obvious.
We’ve spent years now discussing the split imposed on Labour by the realignment in British politics towards cultural values. But, hidden away for the moment, there is also a Tory split, a fracture in its electoral support which seems suddenly visible at certain key moments. The education catch-up decision shows it is still there, waiting to widen, when the austerity narrative takes over.