A shadow cabinet minister told me last night that the party leadership was winning the battle over grammar schools. If today’s newspapers are victory I’d hate to see defeat. Page two of the Daily Mail warns that "Top Tories" are about to quit (they’re always "Top" when they are caught in bed with an unexpected somebody or are criticising the leadership) and page one of The Telegraph describes grammargate as Cameron’s "greatest test". Even Cameron loyalist Bruce Anderson (who otherwise recycles a CCHQ press release for his column in today’s Independent) regrets the "poor tactics" of recent days.
Here are a few random observations about the last few days – in no particular order:
It’s not just the right who are unhappy… When ultra-loyalist Michael Howard is unhappy (you read it here first) with his protege this whole business cannot be lightly ignored. It wasn’t just the usual suspects (Cornerstone) who criticised the Tory leadership at last week’s 1922 meeting. Every wing of the party was concerned. I’ve certainly had every wing of the parliamentary party on the phone to me over the weekend. Some are more concerned about a lack of crisis management than the underlying policy but concern is widespread.
…but the Tory right is very unhappy. I’m still struggling to understand why the reannouncement of an existing policy (no more grammar schools) caused quite the reaction it did but it’s beyond dispute that it did. The fact that it led the news bulletin on last Wednesday’s Today programme might have been enough to induce cornflakes-choking but my guess is that Melanie Phillips gets closest to an explanation in her Mail column. "The Tories," she steams, "have put up silently with his husky trips to the Norwegian glaciers, havering over the health service and hugging of hoodies but this is a repositioning too far." Failure to quit the EPP on schedule, the Toynbee affair and the promise of green taxes on air travel probably did more to prepare the way for this moment but there is a last straw character to the anger on the Tory right. Dissension will be much more public from now on if core Tory beliefs continue to be sacrified in pursuit of approval from the BBC. The whips office aren’t helping things either by trying to pull ‘realo’ members of the Cornerstone Group away from the ‘fundi’ members. Team McLoughlin’s hamfisted tactics are only increasing resentments.
Cameron needs to be more patient in responding to critics’ concerns. It was unhelpful for the Conservative leader to dismiss this row as "pointless", attack The Telegraph and then set up straw men arguments to demolish in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday article. If he wants good and long-term relations with the right-of-centre press and his colleagues he needs to be more conciliatory. David Willetts’ whole approach to this affair has been much more mature. He’s patiently answered numerous interviewers’ questions and on ConservativeHome’s interviews channel is today promising to answer your toughest questions.
Where are David Davis and Liam Fox? There are suggestions that the shadow cabinet didn’t approve of last week’s announcement. The shadow cabinet may have the right to be concerned at "poor tactics" but they cannot complain about the fundamental policy. Collective responsibility means that they should be on the airwaves helping to defend the leader when he’s facing controversy. David Cameron desperately needs Davis or Fox to become his Whitelaw – keeping the right onside as he reaches out to the centre. He also needs to appoint someone to repair relations with The Telegraph that have deteriorated sharply again after some improvement. Janet Daley’s talk today of the "juvenile idiots who advise" David Cameron and of a new Conservatism defined by "patrician condescension" should be ringing alarm bells. For years Janet has been the most loyal of Conservatives but today her attack on the party is well OTT. CCHQ needs to be understanding why and putting it right. ConservativeHome will be making its own ten point case for David Cameron tomorrow.
Strengthen the press operation. Too many rows have got out of control. Hug-a-hoodie. Green taxes. Polly Toynbee. Now grammarsgate. As recommended last December – David Cameron needs a stronger press operation. George Eustice is great but he has less resources than his predecessors and we’re closer to returning to Government than for a long time.
We do have good education policies. They were drowned by the criticism of grammar schools but as this post noted – the party does have some very good policies on education.
Thank God for Gordon Brown. It’s important that we don’t get things out of perspective. The party has just enjoyed very good local election results and the Labour Party is about to replace their most successful ever leader with Gordon Brown. The Chancellor’s cliche-laden and wooden performances since launching his leadership operation should be deeply worrying to all Labour MPs with marginal seats. Project Cameron will emerge stronger from all of this if Team Cameron is humble enough to learn the lessons of the last few days.
I’ll be attending this morning’s Cameron press conference and will report again straight afterwards. The Conservative leader will want to develop his critique of Tony Blair’s loooong goodbye but the press will have other topics on their minds…