Over the past five weeks I have often found myself cursing the British public. I cursed them when Labour’s support started climbing in the opinion polls, grumbling about how some people didn’t deserve to vote. I cursed them when they flocked to the Lib Dem banner following Nick Clegg’s performance in the first debate, complaining about the madness of crowds. And I cursed them on election night when it looked as though they’d granted Gordon Brown a stay of execution, leaving open the possibility that he could cobble together a ‘coalition of the losers’.
In the end, though, they’ve got the outcome they wanted and probably the one that’s best for the country. I know, a Lib-Con coalition wasn’t on the ballot paper, and when the pollsters asked people if they wanted a hung parliament a majority said no. But if you combine the people who voted Labour and Lib Dem it adds up to 60 per cent and if a Lib-Con coalition had been on the ballot paper I suspect it would have won a comparable share of the vote. Many people wanted to get rid of Brown and give David Cameron a chance, but he hadn’t convinced enough of them that the Tories had changed. From the sceptics’ point of view, a Lib-Con coalition is reassuring because it tethers a Cameron-led government to the centre ground.
Most Conservatives would have preferred an overall majority, but given the unpopular-ity of the austerity measures the government will have to introduce, it’s better that the responsibility for those decisions should be shared. A Conservative government, even one commanding a majority in the House, would still not have been elected by a majority of the electorate and, as a result, would have found it harder to inflict swingeing cuts and make them stick. Some sort of civil unrest is probably inevitable, but it will be less widespread under a Lib-Con coalition than under a Conservative government and, more importantly, easier to put down. A battle between the Tories and the public sector unions would have had a whiff of class war about it: the haves versus the have-nots. But if you add the Lib Dems to the Conservative ranks it looks more like the forces of reason versus the forces of unreason.
So where does this leave free schools? Not uppermost in everyone’s mind, I know, but an important consideration for me given that I’ve been leading a 500-strong parent group hoping to set one up in Ealing. I’ve been acting on the assumption that Michael Gove would be the next Secretary of State at the DCSF and marshalling my forces accordingly. But at the time of writing the rumour is that David Laws has got the job. Will we still be able to make any progress?
The low point was not hearing the exit poll last Thursday or even confronting the horrific possibility that Ed Balls might be back as the Schools Secretary in a ‘progressive coalition’. It was watching Michael Gove on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show. When asked if ‘free schools’ were up for negotiation in the ongoing talks between the Tories and the Lib Dems he gave what we hacks call ‘a non-denial den-ial’. He then really set the alarm bells ringing by saying he would be willing to sacrifice his place in the Cabinet if that’s what it took to secure a deal. No, Michael, no. Say it ain’t so!
But by late Tuesday afternoon, things were looking up. Talks between the Lib Dems and Labour had collapsed and a Lib-Con coalition looked a near certainty. The news leaking out of the Cabinet Office, where negotiations were still ongoing, was that the Lib Dems had signed off on the bulk of the Conservatives’ education policy. The blue team had made some concessions to the yellow team, such as agreeing to a larger-than-anticipated pupil premium, but free schools were safe. ‘That was a red line,’ he told me.
I had a slight wobble on Tuesday night when rumours started flying that Michael Gove was going to the Home Office, but the BBC’s Laura Koenssberg put my mind at rest when she announced live on air that the Liberal Democrats had agreed to back free schools. The policy was alive and well!
Assuming that’s correct, this is the best possible outcome from my group’s point of view. Not only has the Conservatives’ best policy has been preserved, but it can now be implemented with the full weight of the coalition’s authority.