Are grammar schools giving cover to Theresa May’s left-leaning agenda?

The Tories have a tortured relationship with grammar schools, so why is May backing them?


Grammar schools have been the bane of many an Education Secretary, and a thorn in the side of successive prime minsters’ tenures.

From Harold Wilson to Nicky Morgan, all have had to grapple with this divisive policy, the darling of the right and the anathema of the left. It sits right on the fault line of left-right wing politics, on one side driving aspiration, on the other entrenching inequality.

So why would May want to tackle this juggernaut? Is she trying to bank her right wing credentials before embarking on a leftward shift on the economy or a compromise over freedom of movement?

In recent years the Conservatives have had a tortured relationship with grammar schools. David Cameron first sought to distance himself from the Grammar schools, in the early ‘hug a hoodie’ phase of his leadership, asserting in 2006 that: ‘the prospect of bringing back grammar schools has always been wrong and I’ve never supported it, and I don’t any Conservative government would have done it’.

Yet in 2014 Cameron gave the green light to building the first new Grammar school in decades.

Theresa May, like Cameron, may see Grammar Schools as a way of placating the right wing flank of the Tory party. The reinstating of Grammar schools was a key pledge in the UKIP 2015 Manifesto.

2015 Comres poll showed that 51 per cent of people supported the building of new Grammar schools; and 63 per cent of Conservatives, 65 per cent of Liberal Democrats and 62 per cent of UKIP voters believe a ban on Grammar schools limits parental choice.

These are all the key electoral groups that May needs to unite to win a general election. However, she’s is facing two impending and interlinked barriers to securing a victory. One, the economy and two, Europe.

The economic outlook post-Brexit is looking bleak. The Bank of England predicting a loss of 250,000 jobs and anaemic growth of 0.1 in the third quarter of 2016.  Cuts in interest rates and Quantative Easing, introduced by the Bank of England (BOE) will likely favour banks rather than consumers, who will use it to secure their own liquidity and not necessarily pass the cut in rates on to their customers.

Hammond’s response to the BOE decision seems to suggest he is proposing a more interventionist approach in his Autumn statement. He says that he will be ‘prepared to take any necessary steps to support the economy and promote confidence.’ 

Now May and Hammond are no longer bound by the shackles of Osborne’s budget surplus, and spooked by the early economic figures are they about to make a clear break with Obsornomics by proposing investment in infrastructure projects to stimulate growth or even reducing VAT?

The MPs who critiqued Labour’s spending as the reason for the economic crash and see the state as a pariah will not take this lightly. The words of Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s free Market guru, are still ringing in their ears: ‘Making the rich poorer does not make the poor richer, but it does make the state stronger.’  

Another worry for May is that she is surrounded by Eurosceptic fanatics. Flanked by David Davis and Liam Fox, who is openly musing on leaving the single market, plus, the 100 or so euroseptic MPs. They are all baying for blood at any sign of betrayal over Brexit.

These EU negotiations will become increasingly difficult as they progress, and much depends on how punitive France and Germany are willing to be.

Are May’s negotiations on a seven year break of freedom of movement a sign that she is willing to make concessions on current EU residency? The last thing May wants to see is the removal of the EU passport which could lead to an exodus of bankers to Frankfurt.

May might just be a right wing fanatic herself who buys into the grammar school dream.  Her own Keith Joseph, Nick Timothy, her chief of staff, certainly does.

But Theresa May’s current move smacks of Lynton Crosby and his  dead cat strategy, of throwing a distraction on the table so no one pays attention to a major problem.

This dead cat, grammar schools, is particularly popular with the Right of her party and many voters who supported Brexit. It may buy her support for a potential leftward shift.

Sam Pallis is a Labour member on the executive of his local CLP and an active Young Fabian. Follw him on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.