Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Boxing Himself In?

Increasingly it seems as if David Cameron has boxed himself into a pretty tight corner as far as the Education Bill has concerned. No doubt if Labour rebels in expected numbers this evening, the Tory spin machine will go into overdrive trumpeting the fact Blair relies on the Tories to get his flagship measures passed. That "triumph" will be short-lived; I doubt it will increase the anti-Blair agitation on the back benches, because that is already pretty great.

Alice Miles argues in the Times today that the Tories should vote against the Bill as it currently stands. There seems little prospect of that now; Cameron's rhetoric of supporting it "being the right thing to do" today is just too strong for such a sudden volte-face. Moreover, if he was to change his opinions before the Third Reading, I would suspect there is a fair chance that might actually stave off the Labour rebellion.

Much of the distaste from Labour backbenchers now seems to be founded on the fact that the Tories support the Bill. David Blunkett was on Sky News in the last hour making the casethat the Tories will now be backing a Bill that opposes selection; even Roy Hattersley is supporting the Bill on that basis! Opposition to trust schools may be slightly more deep-rooted, but I'm not convinced that, concessions considered, it is sufficient to mount a rebellion of fairly large size. The last barrier for Blair, to me, is the fact that education is one of the areas where old Tories and old Labour have a tribal disgust for each other. If the Tories back Blair, there must be something wrong with the Bill.

Thus a carefully timed turnaround from Cameron risks convincing the Labour rebels that Blair has conceded enough. The hope, obviously, is that Blair gets embarrassed by having to rely on Tory support. That strategy requires strong performances from Cameron, especially in PMQs. And on today's performance, it wasn't good enough.

In particular, Blair was superb in attacking what appears total opportunism on the programme motion - highlighting the unease that the Tories have in following the government into the lobbies. Cameron failed to land any real punch. He is much more at ease when responding to Blair's attacks, and is very poor at setting the pace at Question Time. Hague and Howard were far more adept at putting the right argument across from the start. Today, there was a failure on the part of Cameron to explain why the Education Bill was a Tory Bill. (One answer, of course, is that it isn't - it's that favourite Blair tactic of meddling with systems at the expense of substantive reform).

That's not good enough as far as the Tories are concerned. Not if they are to get any lasting effect from the Education Bill - either the perception of a strong party, or a new PM installed at the instigation of a backbench rebellion. Cameron has put himself in a position where the ball is firmly in his court. A stirring performance from him can set the public perception of this debate in a new light. For that to happen, though, he'll have to be a lot more inspiring.