Westminster Hour – Mark discusses Birmingham schools story & Newark by-election

Mark appeared this week on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour with Lib Dem MP, Martin Horwood, and Labour MP, Bridget Phillipson. Below is a summary of Mark’s thoughts on some of the topics that were discussed:

Cabinet row over Birmingham schools/Trojan Horse story

The Prime Minister’s decisive and thoughtful intervention on this matter was clearly designed to bring this simmering spat to a close. However this may prove difficult since two influential Select Committees are now involved in the matter as well. The Education and Home Affairs Select Committees both have strong and independent-minded chairmen in Graham Stuart and Keith Vaz respectively. There is also the issue of whether the ministerial code has been broken.

Unusually within the coalition, both Michael Gove and Theresa May regard themselves as having licence to roam beyond their departmental brief, something that reflects both their stature and future ambitions. Gove regards himself as Kingmaker, taking the Tory modernising revolution to its next stage.

But the story above all reflects genuine policy conflict in the handling of extremism. I see this conflict in my own work with as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. On the one hand you have Theresa May and her highly regarded senior civil servant, Charles Farr, see things pragmatically, with ends justify means, even if this involves working with some pretty unsavoury characters. You can draw parallels in this approach with Margaret Thatcher in Northern Ireland, when she was Michael Gove, on the other hand, takes a much more absolutist, condemnatory stance that the West should publicly and unequivocally state its values, hence the rhetoric about ‘draining the swamp’ in Birmingham schools.

The truth is that this is one of these highly sensitive areas of public policy that lays politicians open to the charge of hypocrisy. Sometimes it’s important to have hard line rhetoric for public consumption while behind the scenes the Home Office, intelligence services, and the police make common ground with people whose views and actions would be regarded as unsavoury.

It’s not as simple as saying that there’s a right or wrong approach on this but I think it is fair to say that between them Theresa May and Michael Gove have for some years had quite different ideas on this important policy issue.

Newark By-Election

It really is hats off to Grant Shapps and the Conservative team in Newark as we fought a really fantastic, grassroots campaign.

Victory in this seat is an historically remarkable achievement. The Conservatives have now ended a run of sixteen unsuccessful defences of seats in a by-election whilst we have been in office. Not since February 1989 had we contrived to win such a contest, so Newark was never a straightforward fight.

It seems the moment that the contest became a two horse race, it focused the mind and many Labour and Liberal voters decided to go Tory in a bid to stop UKIP.

Labour should be worried by their performance here. Whilst significant boundary changes mean this is not as favourable territory for them as it was in 1997 when Newark was narrowly won, it was a seat even in the torrid circumstances of 2010 General Election, when nationally the Party failed to achieve three-tenths of the votes nationally, that it came second with a 22% share. Its performance here suggests that it will have its work cut out winning more challenging Con-Lab marginals at the General Election.

Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency over the UKIP threat. That Party is above all a cultural phenomenon, not simply an anti-Europe/immigration pressure group. UKIP has tapped into the increasingly strong sense of disconnect between the electorate and a political class that drives through political reform without consent. Elite politicians are widely regarded as interchangeable public relations professionals.

Ironically there is today more to choose between the main political parties than at any time in the past 25 years: all too many voters, however, see Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Osborne and Balls as interchangeable politicos. This is the essence of UKIP’s appeal – the outsiders willing to break the system. The fact that they have also now begun to make significant inroads into the Labour vote makes any talk of a formal ‘Conservative-UKIP’ pact a non-starter: the ‘anti politicians’ party would only alienate their newly-won left-leaning supporters by joining forces with us.