Enemy fire falls wide of mark

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Nicolas Barnard tells how Tory sniping failed to pierce Government's armour in the education debate.

IT DOESN'T get any easier for the Tories. They throw everything they can at this Government, but do they make an impression?

The Conservatives took the opportunity of an Opposition Day to take a swipe at the Government's record on education. The press gallery and backbenches cleared immediately.

The Tories' problem is that they don't yet have the ammunition - and too many shots go astray. Common sense revolutions notwithstanding, they're still looking for the right slogan.

Theresa May, leading the debate as shadow education secretary, gave it a good go, with plenty of stabs at a soundbite, but for every half-decent one, there were some real clunkers.

Hence she told us: "Far from education, education, education, we have had spin, trickery and betrayal." That rolled nicely off the tongue and sums up the Tory case pretty well.

But we also got: "The Government is all mouth and no delivery" (eh?) and an obscure link between Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame and Labour's alleged 15 failures in education. Mrs May is enjoying her own 15 minutes after the world realised she shared a name - bar an extra "h" - with a soft-porn star. She declined a bunch of flowers from the other Ms May as she arrived for the debate.

Mrs May has been touring the country - or at least trawling the local papers - for schools with budget cuts, discontented teachers and unfair funding - the only topic in education these days.

She even conjured an amusing figure to mock Labour's pound;19 billion additional cashpledge for education: the Government's spending announcements since May 1997 apparently amount to pound;185 billion - "the equivalent of the Swedish GDP".

The response from the Labour front bench was simply to laugh - indeed, Jacqui Smith earned a reprimand from the deputy speaker for sarcastic comments (she looked fairly unrepentant).

Then David Blunkett replied for the Government. He may affect not to take the Tories seriously, but they listened to him very seriously indeed. Labour, with its formidable spin machine, may have a big mouth but at least Mr Blunkett was able to claim he is delivering on two of the issues at the heart of the education debate - literacy and numeracy.

It was left to the Lib Dems' Phil Willis, fast developing as dishevelled an air as his predecessor, Don Foster, to address the Tories' "common sense" alternative. It should come with a health warning, he concluded.

Surprisingly, the half-dozen Tory backbenchers ranged behind Mrs May included four ex-ministers, with Stephen Dorrell looking more interested in education than he ever seemed to when shadow education secretary.

And there was John Redwood - also prominent in last week's education questions, and throwing himself energetically into the attack despite being sacked by William Hague only weeks ago. He even joked that his own grammar school education had been his passport to the roller-coaster ride he had just enjoyed.

Hansard records that Labour won the vote with 300 to 123. Given that barely a dozen backbenchers were in the chamber at any one time, one wonders where the other 400-odd came from.

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