Even though the row over free schools has nothing to do with the Labour party, it took a reasonable bet that it would benefit from joining the fray by asking an urgent question on the allegation that Michael Gove diverted £400 million from basic need funding to the free schools project.
In the Commons this afternoon, Tristram Hunt accused the Education Secretary of lacking ‘self-control and focus’ and paying for ‘pet political projects in expensive, half-empty, underperforming free schools’. He demanded that Gove confirm that he did indeed re-allocate this funding, asked him to accept the National Audit Office figures showing free school places had been allocated outside of areas of need, asked why the free school programme had been so heavily weighted towards secondary schools when there was a shortage of primary places, and argued that Gove’s leadership of his department was ‘spiralling out of control’.
What came next was a masterclass in how to destroy an opposition, regardless of how valid the questions being levelled by Hunt and co were. Every time a Labour MP rose to ask a question or complain about the way their local authority schools were being treated relative to local free schools, Gove launched into a paen that either highlighted the runaway success of a local free school, that member’s support for local free schools, or a local campaign from parents or football clubs to set up a free school. Most of the hour passed in this way, with Gove essentially press releasing his programme’s achievements, and dodging all the difficult questions the Labour MPs levelled at him.
He also teased Hunt for holding ‘more contorted positions on free schools than some of the Indian sex manuals I can name’.
What looked like a good piece of Opposition-craft from Labour didn’t end up that way at all. It just showed how wily Gove is, and how well-briefed he was before entering the Chamber. If the free schools programme needs to be scrutinised and its architects held to account, then we shall have to wait for another day for that to happen.
As for whether this row worked out for the Liberal Democrats today, well, David Laws chose to stay away from the urgent question. A departmental source explained afterwards that the Liberal Democrat schools minister was having ‘meetings inside the department and elsewhere’ and that the Secretary of State was aware Laws wouldn’t be there. Handy for Gove, as it meant he could steamroller his way through that hour without any Coalition colleague grimacing next to him. But handy for the Lib Dems that they want to make noises off to the newspapers yet avoid the Chamber? That depends on whether you think the party wants coalitions to appear to be a success. On the basis of this weekend’s sniping and the silence of the schools minister today, they don’t think unity on school reform is a price worth paying to give the impression of coalition success.