Andrew Mitchell’s foolishness is only a small part of the Government’s bigger image problem

Giles Marshall 11.11am

Andrew Mitchell is an arrogant fool who should have kept his mouth shut, adopted a bit of humility and did what he was told when he left Downing Street on Wednesday night.

He might thus have saved himself and the Government a good deal of trouble, but the fuss over his alleged outburst  is indicative of much deeper and more serious problems.

First, there has been an extraordinary sea change – yet to be fully remarked on I think – between the Tories and the police force. From the time of the Bobbies’ formation by the Tory Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, there has been an almost symbiotic relationship between the police and the Conservative party. It reached its apogee under Margaret Thatcher, but in the mere two years of the Coalition government it seems to have all but collapsed.

Theresa May was booed at the Police Federation conference, and the Met’s Police Federation Chairman, John Tully, has lately wasted no time in taking every media opportunity possible to condemn Mr Mitchell.

Now Mr Tully is an intensely political individual. The issue at stake is not so much to do with the way in which policing is conducted. It is far more to do with perceived threats to police pay and conditions. Yet whatever the cause, the Conservative party has opened up a front in their war on public servants that even their most pugilistic leader in days past never dared to.

And the police are only the start of the problem. All over the public sector, the Government is now regarded with little other than suspicion and even loathing.  Mr Cameron’s fine words about school sports during the Olympics were – for teachers – hollow sentiments expressed by a man who had presided over the denuding of school sport with such apparent complacency. Meanwhile, Mr Hunt is going to have to bind himself closer to health service professionals than he was even to the Murdochs if he is to have any chance of winning some of them over.

The “public school snob” is the unwelcome description being ascribed to Andrew Mitchell, and there is a real danger for the Government that this becomes more generally applied to them all.

Despite the fact that Michael Gove, for instance, was educated in the state comprehensive sector, or that Mr Cameron himself relied enormously on the NHS during the years of his first son’s health difficulties, the perception persists that this is a team of ministers that sees public services as being only for the poor and non-coping.

It is a disastrous perception. It widens the gap between the governors and the governed to an unacceptable level. Mr Mitchell’s outburst, meanwhile, suggests a sense of entitlement and superiority hardly merited by actions.

Mr Mitchell has made a further statement this morning, which has hardly closed the lid on the matter. Yet I believe that this furore will subside soon enough, with or without his resignation.

What is less likely to go away is the lack of empathy between Mr Cameron’s Government and the people. The recent reshuffle was more ‘lurching to the right’ than appealing to a centrist majority. If he wants to have any chance of recovering the political narrative and being re-elected in 2015, he should return to the modernising roots that served him so well in opposition, and hang the rightists.  Battles with his own right-wingers are infinitely preferable to battles with the wider British public.

Giles is a teacher and a former chairman of the TRG. Follow him on Twitter @gilesmarshall

From the opinion pages, some timely food for thought about what ‘true Conservatism’ truly is

Nik Darlington 10.16am

A couple of very good opinion pieces in the papers today, both from the Times (£) and both important reading for Tories.

Lord Waldegrave, the former health secretary and an honorary life member of the TRG, offers a valuable historical perspective of “true Conservatism” that values a strong state alongside free enterprise.

"In the old days, the genius of British Conservatism was to have taken not only Smith (and read him), but, in addition, Edmund Burke (and read him, too) as their favourite books…

"Tories knew that people and nations did not live by bread alone. We believed in the State - strong and uncorrupt in the ideal vision… Agreed, the State was not much good at producing groceries or motor cars - let the markets do that, while watching them like a lynx to spot the rackets… What wise Conservatives seek is the right balance."

The self-appointed bright-eyed doyens of ‘conservative’ think-tankery politics might scoff at this little history lesson. And maybe with some justification, as even I wince a touch at an opening salvo of “in the old days…”.

But Lord Waldegrave presses on to make a vital and valid point about public and private enterprise. There exists a fetish in contemporary ‘conservative’ circles, based upon a narrow and clumsy reading of Thatcherism, that public management is inherently bad and private is supreme.

"Quite a lot of people who believe it is a given that private companies are always more efficient than the public services have never worked in real private enterprise. As Irving Kristol, the American intellectual and writer, said, an awful lot of people who favour unbridled competition have tenure. My experience tells me that there is no incompetence whatsoever of which the public sector is capable that cannot be matched in spades by the private sector…

"We should be the party that the electorate trusts to oversee a free-enterprise economy, because the electorate understands that we know that free enterprise, vital though it is, is not the only, or even the most important part of the story of a nation."

Meanwhile, Rachel Sylvester has some useful advice for Tories keen to divest themselves of Lib Dem bedfellows. It could be put as simply as, ‘the party did not win the 2010 election’, but that would be to miss out on Sylvester’s lively commentary and choice quotations.

"…some Tory MPs…seem to be in denial about their party’s failure to win an overall majority at the last election. They demand a more authentically Conservative programme, with a greater emphasis on issues such as Europe, immigration and tax…

"But in fact Mr Cameron depends entirely on Mr Clegg to maintain control of the House of Commons. ‘It wasn’t an act of charity to ask the Lib Dems to join the coalition,’ says one Cabinet minister. ‘Some Tories behave as if the Lib Dems were shuffling penniless down the street when we invited them in and have now turned into an over-mighty lodger. The truth is we wouldn’t have been able to form a Government without them.’

"There is a self-interested reason for co-operation. The Conservatives will boost their chances of winning outright next time if they show that they can work with the Lib Dems… One moderniser describes calls for a return to a more traditional agenda as the 'Allo 'Allo! approach to politics: shout louder in your own language in the hope that the foreigners will understand. ‘We can either be in coalition with Lib Dem MPs or go into coalition with Lib Dem voters,’ he says.

"This Government was popular to start with because it signalled a new, more decent way of doing politics."

The pieces are written from different perspectives but their messages are complementary. And timely food for thought about what ‘true Conservatism’ truly is.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Counting the cost of education

Alexander Pannett 9.12am

The world of British higher education has so far had an eventful 2011.  Student riots, soaring tuition fees and most recently the apoplectic response by many left wing academics to A C Grayling’s proposed £18,000 a year New College of the Humanities, have sown deep divisions amongst the university establishment.  Many have argued that the move towards an American style higher education system marks the death of public education in the UK, while others have countered that it is needed to direct much needed resources into a starved and failing system. 

  I have to confess that I have always leaned against the concept of private education.  I do not believe this stems from envy, nor from the fact that my grammar school’s most important rugby event was the annual grudge match against the nearby public school.  I merely believe that it is a more efficient use of resources to allocate education on meritocratic grounds rather than on a parent’s ability to accumulate capital.  Any economy suffers from diminished productivity when nepotism is rewarded over ability.  A higher education system without private institutions is a much fairer guarantor of equality of opportunity than a two-tier system that entrenches undeserved privilege and undermines social mobility.

However, my own experience of higher education has thrown doubt on my well-meaning principles.  I read History at one of the country’s top universities, expecting to interact and learn from some of the finest academic minds in the country.  Instead, I was rather shocked to find that lectures were banally simple in their content and seminars were “student-led” absurdities, packed with enough people to resemble a small lecture hall.  The only teaching was the occasional stammer of wisdom from a tutor perched insouciantly in the corner, carefully engaged in whatever exotic hot drink their recent research trip had reaped from the department’s funds.

Now, this system is fine if all you need from university is a degree certificate, a lot of good parties and an aptitude for blagging.  But what skills have you actually learnt?  Certainly few that will be of much use to an employer.  This again may have been fine in the halcyon days of yesteryear, but globalisation now means that UK graduates compete in a global marketplace.  A UK student who lacks the skills that an employer is looking for will be caught out early in their career and likely passed over for one of the teeming masses of highly skilled and ambitious Asian and American graduates.

The higher education system needs more resources, fresh ideas and more time for teaching rather than research.  Grayling’s new college allows these pragmatic goals to be achieved.  It will also offer bursaries for poor students from the fees generated from richer students.  This is an excellent idea that if applied to public universities would mean richer families and not taxpayers fund poorer students.  If managed effectively, this would be a much more progressive system than allowing for more affluent sections of society to receive education that is effectively subsidised through the Student Loans Company by poorer taxpayers.

Whilst I still believe that higher education should remain free, in an age of dwindling resources and rampant competition, we must be pragmatic if we are to remain a country of world-class learning.  A university system that shuns innovation and ignores the needs of its students will decline in standards.  A lack of choice and competition breeds complacency and poor results.  However, whilst private institutions should be welcomed as sources of more choice and funding, their widespread adoption as the main method of education is not advisable.  A higher education system that is not progressive and fails to act as a conduit for social mobility will entrench malign and inefficient inequalities in wider society.  Access to higher education must remain a public good for progressive reasons.  Whilst the ideas, funds and choice that private colleges bring will help reverse the decline in university standards, eventually the only true remedy for our universities will be an increase in government spending.

Share this article on Twitter