The twin hallmarks of Ed Miliband’s Opposition are under-preparation and over-reach. They were duly dogged by both today.
It should have been a relatively easy target on which to land some kind of punch, even an undeserved one. The allegations of extremism in Birmingham schools are hugely controversial, and the very public row between Theresa May and Michael Gove has been acutely embarrassing for all involved.
The under-preparation came through in Labour’s policy – or rather the lack of it. Despite a day of interviews by Tristram Hunt and two Commons debate sessions, we still don’t know exactly what Labour’s critique of the Government is, or what their solution to the problem would be. The Shadow Secretary of State delivered his reply to the statement in the style of a bored lecturer, without a clear set of claims of questions, leaving a much-hyped afternoon deflating like a week-old party balloon.
Throughout the scandal, Labour have repeatedly implied that extremism was allowed to creep into the classroom because of Gove’s education reforms. At heart, they would love nothing more than to find a silver bullet that proves the Education Secretary wrong.
Unfortunately, reality hasn’t borne their theory out – not only is one of the five schools now in special measures currently run by Birmingham City Council, but all five were under council control when concerns were raised in 2010.
The Opposition’s attempt to pin the failure to respond to those 2010 warnings on Gove has taken a blow, too. When asked to confirm when he had been told of the briefing session, he replied that he had not been told of it – and will therefore be asking questions of Birmingham City Council and his own department to ascertain why not.
At different stages of the debate, Labour proposed both a universal curriculum and the right of schools to opt out completely from the curriculum. Basic errors like this wouldn’t arrive if Hunt had laid out a coherent education policy.
The element of over-reach emerged in yet another misguided attempt to direct parliamentary drama. Gove was meant to be the only Secretary of State before the House today, but Labour decided it would ramp up the pressure if the Home Secretary also had to appear, so they tabled an Urgent Question.
We’ll have a tableau, they must have thought. The two ministers who spent last week fighting will be forced to glower together in public, like a couple who have split up but are still sharing a house. It’ll be personal, awkward and magnificent. A coup.
It didn’t work out that way – in fact, the decision to target both Cabinet Ministers proved to be a severe error.
For a start, May and Gove are two of the best and most combative performers on the front bench. Bringing them both together, rather than trying to pick them off individually, merely strengthened each.
Doing so also further diluted Labour’s watery lines of attack. Neither Yvette Cooper nor Tristram Hunt appeared to be in charge of proceedings, so the performance disintegrated. Is this a matter of education policy, or community cohesion; of security or religion? Whichever it is, what is the proposed alternative? Without a clear argument to start with, they spread their assault too thinly and it descended into a muddle of confused questions, interspersed with shouts from Dennis Skinner.
Finally, the Prime Minister’s knocking together of heads appears to have worked. If the two Secretaries of State were angry with each other last week, today they appeared to have remembered that the real enemy is on the opposite side of the House of Commons.
No-one can pretend that this is a happy story – just read Ofsted’s alarming inspection. As Paul wrote this morning, the threat of islamist extremism is both real and serious. But in parliamentary terms, the Government got off lightly this afternoon – matters of principle, policy and personality could have been at stake, but Labour fluffed their attempt to capitalise on any of them.