The Gove schools policy is ranked by The Spectator as reason in itself to vote Tory and by The Economist as the best single policy of the election campaign. Might it be sacrificed? The 10am radio headlines were suggesting so. I bumped into Gove just afterwards and asked him: panic over. He had simply sought to make clear that he was not insisting on a Cabinet job, and nor was he drawing some kind of red line around is own position. He sought to state the obvious: that he serves at the pleasure of the party leader. There is nothing more to it than that. The Spectator's Toby Young, who is seeking to set up a free school, was like many anxious to read in the Sunday Telegraph that Cameron has put schools up for negotiation. "Will Cameron sacrifice free schools to secure a coalition with the LibDems?" he asks.
My understanding is: no. The two parties do have common ground in their support for the voucher system: Gove has spoken on LibDem platforms about this. The problem is the LibDem commitment to local authority control. The point of the free school policy is to break the LA's monopoly over the provision of state schools. Giving them a veto, as the LibDems propose, is akin to killing the policy. I suspect that a deal could be worked around this: that LAs could be given assurance over schools (perhaps strengthening their grip over Academies) but would not have the ability to veto a new school. Assurances of these nature are fine. The free schools policy is strikingly simple, and requires only three conditions for its success:
1). Planning permission must be granted by a central authority, which would always side with parents over special interests.
2). The value of the voucher must be easy to work out: about 15% each way from a national average.
3). The schools must be able to make a profit, however disguised. Profit means an education industry, which Sweden has nurtured, ensuring fast rollout of schools to the communities that need them most.
David Laws agrees with all three of these points, but his party (and the tail wags the dog in LibDem land) does not. One of the many reasons that The Spectator prefers minority governent to coalition is that the schools policy is too important to compromise on. Ability to implement a manifesto is, I suspect, why 58 percent of voters polled by the Mail on Sunday/BPIX prefer minority government (with some loose voting deal with the LibDems). Communities need schools to open this coming October. Cameron will face a second election soon, perhaps this October, and will be asked what progress he has made. I do hope that the Gove schools agenda will, by then, have solicited hundreds of applications so Cameron can say: "only by voting Tory will communities have the schools they need." There are many things Cameron can compromise on: he can scrap the Bill of Rights and his European lock proposal. But schools policy is too important to bargain away.