Gillian Shephard veered sharply to the Right as the Education Bill got under way.
The disturbing metamorphosis of Gillian Shephard from kindly, firm-but-fair headmistress into the sort of pro-flogging Tory more usually associated with hard-core party conference regulars has left people wondering.
Is this a revelation of her true colour, or merely a piece of Machiavellian political manoeuvring to butter up her former enemies on the Tory Right?
The Education and Employment Secretary's dramatic announcement was made on Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday. She viewed the beating of schoolchildren as a "useful deterrent", and would actually welcome amendments from backbenchers to the Education Bill to reintroduce the cane, listeners heard. This was the culmination of a series of overtures to the Right made during a week dominated by headlines about unruly children.
At the weekend she criticised her own advisers at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, saying their paper on the teaching of morality did not lay enough stress on family values, while on Tuesday she popped up in The Sun preaching on religious education.
Within two hours of the Today broadcast, John Major whipped her back into line via the thoroughly modern instrument of the mobile phone, embarrassing her during a speech to a school in Weybridge.
While this is the latest of many rows in the relationship between the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary, what is delighting the pundits is that this time the PM has had to thrash her for being too tough rather than too soft. Wednesday's papers followed up with a rash of gleeful spanking, lashing and beating headlines.
The unveiling of the Education Bill in the Commons was thus dominated by whips and canes, to the palpable relief of many backbenchers - here at least was an old-fashioned, very English education issue that everyone understood and to which everyone could enjoy contributing. Conservatives such as Tony Marlow congratulated Mrs Shephard on her stand and promised to table an amendment, while James Pawsey, leader of the backbench Tory education committee, who led the opposition to the decision 10 years ago to fall in with European rulings on caning, suggested that the new home-school contracts proposed in the Bill could allow parents to give their consent to caning, thus bypassing the European rulings. The legality of this is still unclear.
Mrs Shephard was forced to confess that she had been rebuked by the PM, but appeared remarkably unabashed: "My own personal view is that corporal punishment can be a useful deterrent . . . the Prime Minister takes a different personal view. But the Government position is that we are not putting the restoration of corporal punishment into the Bill."
While most of the papers were interpreting Mrs Shephard's action as another of her astute political adjustments - even as a bid for the leadership - moderate Conservative commentators were more inclined to see it as gut reaction, not calculation.
Dmitri Coryton, chair of the left-leaning Conservative Education Association, said: "She has been very astute in the past, but this has all the hallmarks of a gut reaction; support for corporal punishment is regarded as usual in people from her background on Norfolk County Council, and she is married to a former secondary head."
Having finally established what was not in the Bill, the debate on the actual proposals - increasing selection, measures to improve discipline through home-school contracts, and giving schools more flexibility in the use of exclusion - was more predictable.
David Blunkett began with a series of somewhat laboured jokes about mobile phones and whips ("John Major's dictum 'Don't mess with Gilly' has become 'Save me from Gilly's mess'") before launching into an impassioned diatribe against the pernicious effects of selection, condemning the policy as a cynical attempt to embarrass Labour.
He was supported by Gerry Steinberg (who resigned from the Education Select Committee over the Harriet Harman affair). Mr Steinberg treated the House to a potted autobiography on the trauma of his 11-plus failure. Tories then returned to their favourite subject - Labour hypocrisy.
The affair at The Ridings school in Halifax loomed large, with Labour backbenchers like Alice Mahon, the local MP, attributing the school's problems to the creaming effects of selection in the area. Gillian Shephard retaliated in her most headteacherly style, asking why, if some schools can do well against the odds, can't schools like The Ridings?
The quality of the debate improved as the afternoon wore on and the big guns began to leave. Dame Angela Rumbold made some sensible remarks about the dangers of expecting teachers to solve all the ills of society, while George Walden, a former Tory education minister who has announced that he will not be standing in the next election, delivered an extraordinary, highly eloquent critique of his own party's education policy. The Assisted Places Scheme, he said, smacked of an "outdated concept of welfare . . . which could have been administered by a Victorian charity commissioner".
"That is the flavour of it - throwing crumbs down to the poor, deserving children, crumbs which are often intercepted by the agile hands of the middle classes." The scheme was a symptom of the damaging "educational apartheid" that is unique to Britain, he said.
"Our position is intellectually and practically indefensible," he said, but so was that of the Labour party, who retreated into "the old, trite, anti-elitist arguments". Selection was another "primitive, class-motivated debate" which owed more to political provocation than principle. He then crushed John Major's dream of a grammar school in every town by calling it "a vulgar proposal".