There have been a number of accounts in the press about Alan Johnson’s humiliating U-turn on faith schools and how it has hurt his leadership ambitions.  One in The Observer mentions that 39 concerned Labour MPs met the Education Secretary last Thursday and some warned that their seats were at risk from unhappy Catholic parents.

Since I posted about the issue yesterday I have received some contact from our own parliamentary party and have a few observations to add to the public record.

ConservativeHome’s account begins with David Cameron’s Party Conference speech and these words from it:

"The Cantle Report recommended that faith schools admit a proportion of pupils from other faiths.  Only this week the Church of England said it would implement this recommendation in all new church schools it creates… admitting a quarter of pupils from non-Anglican backgrounds.  That is a great example of what I mean by social responsibility.  The Church deciding to take responsibility for community cohesion.  Society – not the state.  I believe the time has come for other faith groups to show similar social responsibility."

These words apparently panicked Lord Adonis, Johnson’s Blairite Lords spokesman.  Adonis feared that the Tories were about to get behind Lord Baker’s quota plan and that Labour might be defeated in defending the status quo.  Adonis talked to one of the Tories’ spokesmen in the Lords – Baroness (Peta) Buscombe – and appeared reassured that there could be more Cameroonian-Blairite bipartisanship on education if Labour embraced something like Baker.

Opposition to the quota plan that Alan Johnson touted became led,
therefore, by Catholic leaders rather than Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Catholic Tories were dismayed that their party was not seizing the
opportunity to champion the many usually left-leaning Catholic parents
who had been angered by Alan Johnson’s plans.  Contact with the Shadow Education Secretary’s office only increased their concern.  The response was
hesitant and there was confusing talk of giving local authorities a
greater role in deciding who faith schools could admit.

At the same time, however, the Tory whips were beginning to grasp the extent of Tory MPs’ hostility to any quota plan.  David Willetts was left in no doubt of the concerns of Cornerstone MPs when he met twenty of them at a meeting convened by one of his junior frontbench spokesmen, John Hayes MP.  The meeting had been arranged to discuss education issues in general but Mr Willetts left the meeting in sure knowledge that a Commons rebellion would be likely if the quota plan went ahead.  Whips who attended the Cornerstone meeting took further soundings from the parliamentary party and Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin was warned that resignations from the frontbench were a real possibility if quotas became party policy.

Things came to a head in the last week.  David Willetts was away in China and responsibility for dealing with the issue fell to shadow schools minister Nick Gibb.  Baroness (Trish) Morris in the Lords had by this stage begun a constructive dialogue with Catholic peer Lord Alton and his amendments protecting faith schools from artificial quotas appeared likely to command widespread support in the Upper House.  Morris, Hayes and Boris Johnson encouraged Gibb to meet with David Cameron – and fully supported by the hugely influential and respected Patrick McLoughlin – the Conservative leader decided that the Tories would oppose any quota scheme.  The party was back where it started with David Cameron’s conference speech and its welcome for the Church of England’s voluntary change to its admissions policy.

The Tory decision may have been the final straw for Alan Johnson and Lord Adonis.  Already under enormous pressure from churchleaders and backbenchers with large faith school populations, the Education Secretary made his noisy U-turn.