Are his shadows keeping him on his toes?
Here’s a statement that might not meet with universal agreement on the site: in recent weeks, I’ve been rather impressed by Ed Balls’ performance as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
In spite of the fact that Ipsos MORI’s issue tracker shows Education mattering less than at any time since Labour came to power, the Secretary of State has recently secured additional funding from the Treasury for underachieving schools, agreed to an overhaul of the pre-Key Stage 3 curriculum in line with Sir Jim Rose’s interim report, and acted decisively over two crises. The sacking of Sharon Shoesmith from Haringey Council could not come soon enough for many, but I was actually surprised that Mr Balls intervened personally to ensure her dismissal without recompense. Similarly, few of us expected, after the recent exam results fandango, that not only would US firm ETS have their contract terminated, but that the KS3 SAT exams would be scrapped.
I don’t want to get into the rights or wrongs of each action or policy, but combined with much-improved media performances, I think there has been a marked improvement in Balls’ performance since the low-point of the ‘So Weak’ [sic] interjection some months ago.
However, without wishing to detract from this, I suspect that a large part of his transformation from back-room Treasury wonk to front-bench politician has been having perhaps the most difficult shadows of any Cabinet Minister on the Opposition benches. On the Lib Dem benches is one of the brightest of a clever frontbench team: David Laws MP, who followed a double first in Economics at Cambridge with a job as a Managing Director at JP Morgan. Laws was once tapped up by George Osborne to join the Conservative Shadow Cabinet if he would only defect, but refused. According to the recent Mirror scoop:
Even close pal David Laws, Children, Schools and Families spokesman, came under scrutiny. Sheffield MP Clegg said: â€œLaws is not enjoying Education. The Tories have left him no space. But heâ€™s got a forensic intelligence â€“ heâ€™s probably the best brain we have.â€
His adviser chipped in: â€œWe want to get our best players in the most important jobs, thatâ€™s the truth of it.â€ Again, Clegg nodded.
What is telling about this comment, however, is the credit afforded to one of the best performers of the political year – Shadow Secretary of State for the DCFS, Michael Gove. With criticism thrown at David Cameron’s party for (rightly) not unveiling a full policy manifesto months before an election, pre-university education is one of the few areas in which Conservative policy is both well-developed and radical enough to be revealed without fear of plagiarism. Gove favours the implementation of Swedish-style “Free Schools”, whereby disatisfied parents would be permitted to start their own state schools with a grant of around Â£6,000 per pupil.
In addition to daring policy initiatives, Gove is one of the best communicators the Tory Party currently possesses. I first heard him speak live at the inaugural ‘Salon’ debate organised by the excellent Standpoint magazine (on whose advisory board he serves), arguing about the nature of terrorism with American expert Philip Bobbit. He is compelling and fluent, and brings a natural energy and poise when addressing his public.
He is a gifted Parliamentarian, as demonstrated by this pithy speech in the Commons on Thursday. He is forensic in his questioning, and although his detractors accuse him of being a ‘neo-conservative’, he comes across as a perfectly-sensible moderate, at least when discussing domestic policy.
We are all guilty of focussing too heavily on the Big Five in each Cabinet (PM, Home Sec, Chancellor, Foreign Sec, and Lord Chancellor), but I don’t think many would disagree that a Cabinet needs to have exceptionally-able performers in the ‘second-tier’ departments (Health, Education, DWP and Defence), given that they are responsible for spending the vast majority of taxpayers’ money. The problem is that anyone who performs this well is likely to rise to higher things rather quickly. In the case of Mr Gove, I hope he keeps his portfolion if the Conservatives are elected, not least because it would be compelling to see whether such a radical overhaul of the state education sector is possible.
It’s a shame that there aren’t tri-partite pre-election debates, because in this one key area, I suspect that we would see some significant differences of opinion expressed by three very able politicians.