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The lesson of Gove's fight with a quango is that the Government needs a plan to take them on

GOVE MICHAEL BLACK A few months before the election, I published a story on this site about how a quango planned, if Labour were re-elected, to make uncontroversial savings quietly, but if the Conservatives won, to cull "politically sensitive projects with a high profile"..."in a way that the public will notice".  Labour's campaign against the reductions in the Partnerships for Schools (PFS) Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme is being led by Ed Balls.  But it's clearly being kept on its legs by sources within the Whitehall bureaucracy.  As the Observer noted soberly yesterday: "the questions from Balls appear to be based on leaks from within government".

If a political story focused on a Minister's errors can stagger on for a week, he runs the risk of being labelled as "beleaguered" or - as Gove is in this morning's Daily Mail - "embattled".  The Minister is open to another crisis, if he isn't protected by his colleagues (generally) and the Prime Minister (specifically).  Opposition politicians and the media pack join forces to hunt and kill him.  Viewed from one perspective, Gove made mistakes last week.  For if one takes a strict view of our constitution, Ministers are responsible for their Department's errors.

It was to the Education Secretary's credit, in a sense, that he didn't try to shift the blame, attempting to distinguish between policy and operational matters in the way that some of his predecessors have done.  He was also leaving himself vulnerable.  Gove has been unfortunate.  He had to apologise twice last week, simply because he had to address the Local Government Association's annual conference the day after his emergency Commons statement.  And today, as the luck of the draw has it, he has education questions in the Commons, and the first is on the BSF programme.

All this - combined with fairly quiet political news elsewhere - has helped to keep the story staggering on for the best part of a week.  But not as much as open letters to Gove from Balls, a classic Opposition tactic: journalists need a basis for stories - believe it or not - and Balls' letters have given them reason to keep up the pressure on Gove.  (There's also a sense that parts of the media pack are bored with the Labour leadership war between the Miliband brothers, would welcome a less deathly contest, and are therefore ready to give the Shadow Education Secretary a good write-up.)

And, as the Observer suggested, those open letters seem to draw on inside knowledge of what's been going on within the Department of Education.  Tim wrote last Thursday that the BSF saga is a mere warm-up act for what will follow once spending plan reductions of more than a quarter in most Departments are agreed and announced.  The collective response on the Government benches hasn't been robust.  At the Liberal Democrat end, Simon Hughes is manoevering to bolster his position as the spokesman for his Party's left, declaring that "the will of the local community is for the existing schools to continue".  (How does he know?)

At the Conservative end, four MPs - some notably on the right of the Party - have moved to champion their schools and protect their positions.  One said that renovating schools in some areas is "above politics".  The Education Secretary has had less vocal support than one might have expected.  Downing Street has a choice.  It can be passive, and simply wait for last week's events to be repeated, with worse consequences for the Coalition.  Or it can be active, and head off at least part of the problem that looms after the spending review announcements in the autumn.

Every Cabinet Minister requires a support team of MPs who'll rally round once battle commences.  Gove must have his around and about this afternoon, in the TV studios as well as the Commons chamber.  Labour must be challenged more aggressively about what they'd do, were they in Government: after all, Alistair Darling pledged cuts "tougher and deeper" than the spending scale-backs made by Thatcher.  And Number Ten needs quickly and quietly to draw up a plan to make a bonfire of the quangos.  Death for them by a thousand cuts is a better option than death for the Government by a thousand leaks.

Paul Goodman 


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