Manifesto juggling act

6th October 1995 at 01:00
With the general election less than 18 months away, the Prime Minister is now considering proposals from his manifesto policy groups and a massive consultation exercise in the constituencies is drawing to a close.

The manifesto group on education, chaired by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, has submitted its first report to Mr Major. The group included representatives of local government, universities and schools, as well as prominent backbenchers such as James Pawsey, chairman of the Tory backbench education committee.

But some of the group's ideas have already been overtaken by the Prime Minister himself. In his recent speech to grant-maintained heads, he announced measures to boost the flagging drive towards opting out, such as giving GM schools greater freedom on admission arrangements.

Much to the irritation of Mrs Shephard, the policy unit at 10 Downing Street drafted the speech after consulting Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation. So reforms she had described as "manifesto territory" suddenly became Government policy well before the election.

Sir Robert, a member of the manifesto group, saw the opportunity to get in early with proposals favourable to the grant-maintained sector at a time when Mr Major was short of new ideas on education. Or, as an insider from the world of grant-maintained schools put it: "He saw the vacuum and he went for it."

That is instructive of what will happen to all of the proposals now being put together by the various policy groups, constituency associations and other party committees and think tanks. In the end, what goes into the manifesto will be decided by a small group of insiders at Number 10, although some of the drafting may be done at Central Office and the finished document will go to the Cabinet for approval.

As more than one Conservative source pointed out, policy groups are often set up to "keep people quiet" while the real decisions are made elsewhere. "Occasionally something interesting comes up but that's a coincidence," one source added.

A key issue on which both the manifesto group on education and the Prime Minister himself are thought to be undecided is whether all schools should be forced to opt out.

While greater independence is seen as an advantage for all schools, there is a strong argument against compulsion: that GM schools are popular and successful because of a voluntary effort by the school itself and that forcing unwilling schools to opt out would be counter-productive.

On higher education, radical funding reforms are thought to have been ruled out by the group because of fear of frightening off middle-class voters. But there is general concern at the possible dilution of standards caused by admitting such a large share of the age group to higher education and agreement that minimum entrance criteria must be more strictly defined.

A party policy group on higher education, under the auspices of the Conservative Political Centre at Central Office, will report soon. But its general line is considered too radical to stand much chance of acceptance.

Meanwhile, the constituency associations are carrying out a consultation exercise on five themes: "a nation of enterprise and prosperity", "a nation of opportunity and ownership", "law and order", "first-class public services" and "a sovereign nation". (Education is understood to belong in the category of "opportunity and ownership" rather than under "public services".) Constituency chairmen are to send their conclusions to Central Office by the end of October.

Party activists should feel they have been thoroughly consulted. But when they come to read the manifesto, they may wonder whether anybody was listening.

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