From the archive - It started with a kiss for Gillian

8th October 2010 at 01:00
18 October 1996 - It was an education love-in at the Conservative Party conference - the last before Blair

Unity was all at last week's Conservative party conference. Having raised the arm of his chancellor Ken Clarke in a boxer-style victory salute in the morning, the prime minister had to find a way of showing solidarity with his diminutive education and employment secretary in the afternoon. But how? If he tried to raise her arm, he might lift her off the floor. In the event, he opted for a pre-emptive strike.

As Mrs Shephard walked to the blue circle to deliver her speech, Mr Major popped out from behind a screen, gave her a kiss and sat down. She responded by saying he should have more grammar schools - if parents wanted them. "We may even see a grammar school in every town," she twinkled at him, making it clear that she did not particularly want them.

Mr Major might have been forgiven for dozing off. Mrs Shephard's style and delivery were competent rather than spell-binding, and she is far better suited to the informality of the fringe meetings she charmed all week rather than the big set-piece.

The next day the prime minister began his conference address on opportunity and choice in education. Stressing that every child was unique and should not be made to fit into a regimented system, he said the government's task was "to provide a rich choice of schools and colleges".

"Who should chose the right schools for these children?" he asked. "The government, the bureaucrats in Whitehall, the councillor in the town hall or the parents who love and care for those children? Of course, the parents.

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