In his article for ConservativeHome this morning William Hague offers a very upbeat review of the grammar schools row. The party’s de facto deputy leader argues that David Cameron’s leadership has been strengthened because of his willingness to face down critics of his policy shift. Mr Hague also believes that the lasting impression on the electorate will be that the next Conservative government is determined to focus on the education of the many, not the few.
Those two conclusions are probably true but the Conservative leadership shouldn’t ignore the downsides of the row. Many activists and MPs feel bruised. Many believe that the press management of the announcement was inadequate and we’ve got to rebuild the Tory-Telegraph relationship. I continue to hope that the leadership will use David Davis and Liam Fox more energetically. They should be more central to policy formulation and more central to keeping the conservative coalition together. In today’s Telegraph Iain Dale suggests that some big commitments to more defence spending will reassure traditionalists.
Iain agrees that "lessons need to be learnt to improve the media and party management of the controversial policies which will be announced over the rest of the year." That must be right. You can only offend MPs and activists so many times before the party risks its reputation for unity – the third point of the iron triangle of political success.
As we go into the bank holiday and leave the grammar schools row behind I would add two other lessons to be learnt. I’ve probably spoken to about 25 Conservative MPs from all wings of the party since this story broke and two themes repeatedly emerge: (1) that frontbenchers outside of the shadow cabinet feel out of the loop and (2) the whips office is not functioning as well as it might.
The parliamentary party might work better if frontbenchers received better briefings from their shadow cabinet ministers. Members of four frontbench teams have told me that they sometimes learn about announcements in their own ‘departments’ from the media. The whips office is the other area of concern. Backbenchers feel that the whips are not communicating their concerns to the leadership and get treated like "NCOs". One MP told me that the whips office had a barracks room ethos rather than a boardroom ethos. "It was stuck in the personnel management methods of the 1950s," another MP said. This may be one explanation for the fact that half of the 2005 intake have rebelled against frontbench positions at least once according to revolts.co.uk.
Postscript: On GMTV’s Sunday programme John Bercow will say that it will be "electoral suicide" for the Tories to go on about grammar schools. Mr Bercow also has confidence that there’ll be no retreat by David Cameron from his modernising mission: "I think the big difference between David and his predecessors is that he has the advantage of seeing how his predecessors failed by backtracking, by compromising, by resorting to appeals to the core vote, David is simply not going to retreat into that sort of right wing laager because he knows it’s not worth it, he won’t win, we would lose again. It’s just not going to happen."
Related link: The centre-right case against more selection by James O’Shaughnessy