Grudge unites ministerial rivals

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Until last week Kenneth Clarke and Gillian Shephard appeared to share only membership of the Cabinet and post-election ambitions to lead the Conservative party.

The Daily Telegraph would now have us believe that the Chancellor and the Education and Employment Secretary, along with three other ministers (Virginia Bottomley, national heritage, Douglas Hogg, agriculture, and Tony Newton, Leader of the House) share a grudge against Brian Mawhinney, chairman of Conservative Central Office, and jointly protested to the Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad.

Ministerial aides deny any such event, but Dr Mawhinney has done enough to irritate the five to give the report credence without any evidence that the meeting took place.

In Mrs Shephard's case, the more serious strains in the relationship with Central Office emerged in the summer. Journalists were briefed about John Major's ambitions to have a grammar school in every town. It became clear that Mrs Shephard was being armlocked to produce a Bill that would introduce greater selection in schools.

The last straw for the Education and Employment Secretary was the revelation in June that Dr Mawhinney was urging the Prime Minister to appoint an aggressive right-winger to toughen up the education team.

Central Office claimed that Mrs Shephard was not taking on Labour or promoting a radical agenda for education. Mrs Shephard apparently complained and peace was restored.

There are still skirmishes over policy, particularly in the drafting of the manifesto. The Right dominates Central Office and wants to promote a free market in education.

However, the critical ideological divide is over Europe with education relegated to a sideshow. The Education Bill going through the Commons proves that the right has achieved a major part of its programme.

Grant-maintained schools are still expected to be given the opportunity to select up to half their intake and the Education and Employment Secretary is to get new powers to prevent local authorities blocking grammar schools.

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