Boris Johnson has a choice this autumn between reshuffling his Cabinet and not reshuffling it. That sounds like a statement of the obvious. But like many claims of that kind, it’s a bit of a simplification.
The full merger of the Foreign Office and the International Development Department is about to take place. So it’s reported today that a new place in Cabinet must be found next month for Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the International Development Secretary.
The conventional wisdom for months has been that she will replace Ben Wallace at Defence, who some expected to be dismissed at that post after last winter’s reshuffle.
But if the Prime Minister really is committed to minimal Cabinet change, and wants to wait until the New Year for a shuffle, he could simply make Trevelyan the Minister of State responsible for International Development in the new merged department, and give that job Cabinet ranking until next year, or longer. Problem solved.
You may agree or disagree with that suggestion, but there is a wider significance to whether or not Johnson does or doesn’t carry out a reshuffle very shortly.
Let’s suppose that he does so, moving Trevelyan to Defence and, as the same report claims today, moving or firing that great survivor, Liz Truss, from International Trade…but leaving Gavin Williamson at Education, just as his Department needs both to lead in getting schools back, and sorting the knock on of the A-level and GCSE retreat.
The cynical Village view is that the Education Secretary will be reshuffled in January anyway, and might as well continue to soak up the blame for these problems until – hey presto! – a shiny new replacement steps into the light.
Even at this brutal level of prioritising power politics above good government, we believe that such thinking misses a simple point. Which is that Willliamson has now become, fairly or unfairly, a poster boy for the Government’s mistakes. And the longer he stays in place, the more viewers the poster will get.
We don’t yet know how damaging the events of the last few days have been. One take is that only those affected adversely by the distributed A-level grades and their families and friends will take very much notice.
Another, as expressed by William Hague, is that the affair could create poll-tax type levels of damage to the Government. At this stage, we simply don’t know. But either way, why take the risk of damaging the Government’s reputation and ratings still further?
More importantly, what about the students and institutions themselves – and indeed the whole country and our economy, given the link between getting children back to school and parents returning to work?
What about the prospects for a generation of pupils, who have already missed, in so many cases, the best part of an academic year’s education and socialisation? The impact on “levelling-up”, given the disparity between the private and public sector’s record on teaching online, has been wounding.
The Education Secretary must take the lead in persuading parents, many of whom will still be furloughed until the end of October, to get their children back to school.
Perhaps they will be more than willing to do so, but what about public fear of the Coronavirus – accentuated by the demand for mask-wearing in shops and on transport? (Our point isn’t that this is necessarily wrong: rather, that there’s a tension between telling people that it’s now safe to go to work but also necessary to wear a mask.)
Furthermore, the National Education Union hasn’t gone away, and Labour’s change of tack on school returns can’t be relied on. Keir Starmer’s priority isn’t the welfare of children. It’s attacking the Government.
Williamson’s credibility as an ambassador for safety is obviously shot. And it gets worse. While grappling with school re-openings, he must also deal will the effects of a U-turn that was necessary but consequential. These are like a row of dominos.
If the universities must take extra students this year, that has an effect on teaching and accommodation; if some students must now wait until next year, that has one on next year’s cohort of students…and so on.
The Education Secretary must do much more than seek to pour balm on these wounds, which Williamson is now spectacularly poorly-placed to do. He must also take some serious policy action in the future that this week’s dramatic turn of events has opened up.
The Government is committed to consider “the Augar Review’s…thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels, the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticehips and adult learning”.
Those are the words of last December’s Conservative Manifesto, and they were a signal for the rebalancing between higher and further education for which there is now a consensus on the centre-right. And which, as irony would have it, Williamson has been preparing.
And bang on cue, a letter appears reminding us that a crisis can be turned into an opportunity. Universities UK has written to the Education Secretary to complain of the knock-on possibilites of this week’s decision.
Namely, that more students, with the lifting of the cap, will now opt for higher-ranked universities, leaving consequences for lower-ranked ones. “A number of institutions will lose out from this very late policy change and will need significant financial support from government to stabilise their finances,” as the organisation puts it.
Which in turn opens up the possibility of nudging these institutions from the academic to the vocational path. We quote two of our MP columnists on the policy and popular benefits of such reform.
On the policy side, here is Neil O’Brien, from earlier this year. “The stars are aligning for a landmark reform: on the one hand, boosting funding for youth job schemes, and putting rocket boosters under plans to build a prestigious, German type technical education system.
And on the other, paying for it by cutting back poor-value degree courses which waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.”
On the political side, here is Richard Holden, winner of a former Red Wall seat. “For many young students, we’re selling a false promise. Taking people out of work for three years…for them to get jobs in which they end up earning less than if they hadn’t gone to university is clear economic madness, and politically toxic too.”
Even the best-placed politician might flinch at the triple challenge of leading school reopening, and dealing with the short-term knock-on of this week’s decisions plus the longer-term task of reshaping further and higher education.
The Education Secretary could not be worse-placed to take it on. Whether or not Ministers or Ofqal were primarily responsible for the Government’s humiliation is a matter for another day. Today’s is whether Johnson will continue to try to tough it all out – and risk letting Williamson’s clattering train run completely out of control.