An uprising by Conservative MPs is most likely to succeed in the following laboratory conditions.
First, if it has a clear aim.
Second, if Parliament is sitting, and votes can be held – on amendments to a Bill, for example; or on an Opposition motion. Or even if there are no votes, but a Minister is suddenly hauled to the despatch box to answer an urgent question or open a Standing Order 24 debate.
Third, if it is widely and deeply held.
All these elements were present during the recent row over free school meals for children during these summer holidays. The revolt’s objective was clear: to compel Rishi Sunak to find the money to fund them. Parliament was sitting. (Labour duly slapped down an Opposition Day motion on the subject.) And finally, backbench opinion was relatively united in wanting the Chancellor to stump up the required £120 million or so.
None of these circumstances applied to last week’s A-level results, and their aftermath, and one of them at least won’t to this week’s GSCE awards, which will be issued on Thursday. This is despite Ministers conceding that both sets of results are unfair to many pupils. (If they didn’t admit the point, they wouldn’t be encouraging appeals, would they?)
So why the difference? Because, first, those MPs unhappy with last week’s A-level results have no agreed objective. Some hanker after the SNP solution – that’s to say, for the Government simply to give way, and let the grades recommended by schools stand. Others would like the results to be scrapped altogether, and exams being sat in the autumn. Most hope that that the appeals process will somehow iron the difficulties out.
Second, Parliament isn’t sitting. Which means no UQs, no SO24s, no Opposition Day motions – and no votes.
Finally, Tory MPs differ not only over potential solutions to the problem, but also over how big it is in the first place. A few are personally affected, with their own children sitting exams; more have schools and pupils in their seats which they complain have been penalised.
But others from a variety of seats report a low number of complaints to date.
So, crucially, backbench opinion has been divided. Or so WhatsApp group debate among MPs reportedly suggests.
“On the Richter Revolt scale, I’d put this at about six,” one experienced hand told ConHome. Some Tory MPs feel that the Government should resist a Scotland-style U-turn; others still are primarily concerned about any move that would allow more grade inflation.
Above all, perhaps, newish backbenchers have learned from the Dominic Cummings saga – their first experience of a real e-mail and social media pile-on. “I’m not planning to write any full replies for a fortnight,” one newcomer said. “I want to see how the appeals process starts to bed down.”
Furthermore, much of media moved on, after a day of intense coverage, from A-levels to French quarantine. There is less commentary than might have been expected in today’s papers. And fewer vituperative quotes about the Education Secretary, too.
None the less, Gavin Williamson and Nick Gibb are in very serious trouble. Yesterday’s Ofqual U-turn over appeals was a shambles, and will register on the Conservative backbenches. Even those who support the Government’s position complain that Ministers moved late over appeals and fees. Finally, those GCSE results will come later this week, affecting a larger number of pupils.
Above all, the Education Secretary’s capacity to help craft a return to school for England’s pupils may have been further damaged. He is pushing the cause today, amidst a very bad time for him. We will return to these matters tomorrow.