By Alex Callinicos
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2521

Divisions over grammar schools show splits in the Tory Party

This article is over 5 years, 11 months old
Issue 2521
Has Theresa May overextended herself over grammar schools?

Has Theresa May overextended herself over grammar schools? (Pic: Policy Exchange)

As the weeks go by, we are beginning to get a picture of what kind of prime minister Theresa May will be.

Take last week’s announcement of a return to grammar schools.

On the face of it this is bizarre. It faces strong opposition not simply from a wide spectrum of opinion in the education world, but also from within the Tory party.

David Cameron discovered what a divisive issue grammar schools are back in 2007. The Tory right reacted with fury after he ruled out a return to the eleven-plus.

Meanwhile the two last Tory education secretaries, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, are against reintroducing grammar schools.

Even if May could get the measure through the House of Commons, where she has only a narrow majority, she would face a House of Lords that probably would have no inhibition about rejecting it.

The last Tory election manifesto said nothing about going back to grammar schools.

May might still win in the end, but she would have to use a lot of political capital. And you would have thought she might want to conserve this capital for the much bigger fight over Brexit.

Last week a Financial Times columnist wrote, “The phoney war over Brexit is over.”

They may think that this is the way for May to make her mark early on in her premiership.

On the one hand, May was under pressure at the G20 summit in China from Barack Obama to make sure that Brexit is as soft as possible. In other words to ensure that Britain leaving the European Union (EU) disrupts the global political economy as little as possible.

On the other hand, the two most avid supporters of Brexit in the cabinet—secretary for exiting the EU David Davis and international trade secretary Liam Fox—began publicly to lay out their wares.

They made it clear that they want a hard Brexit—cutting loose from the European single market in order to pursue the dream of Britain as a global trading power.


May was careful to distance herself from Davis and Fox, and to refuse to reveal her negotiating hand with the EU.

But the fact remains that she faces the most titanic political struggle as she balances between the pressures from the British and global ruling classes and from her own right wing.

The second explanation is that May is throwing a bone to the Tory right.

So why open another front on grammar schools? There are two possible explanations. One is that May genuinely believes in what she is doing. Nick Timothy, her joint chief of staff, advocates what he calls “blue-collar Toryism” and supports grammar schools.

They may think that this is the way for May to make her mark early on in her premiership.

If this is genuinely the rationale, then we can see how hollow all May’s promises to help “ordinary working people” are. As numerous critics are pointing out, it is a reactionary fantasy to imagine that institutionalising selection will somehow increase social mobility.

The second explanation is that May is throwing a bone to the Tory right. If she is working towards negotiating a soft Brexit, then it may make sense to conciliate the Brexiteers by showing them that, at least on this issue, she is on their side.

Stephen Bush has pointed out in the New Statesman that the grammar school issue is a tricky one for Gove. He was cast into the outer darkness by May when she formed her cabinet.

Opposing her now will ensure he remains exiled from office. But also, “If there is a path back to relevancy for Gove and his allies, it almost certainly lies with the Tory right, who, like Gove in his appearances in the chamber thus far, support a swifter—and more economically damaging—version of Brexit than that favoured by Theresa May.

“But those would-be allies are also die-hard supporters of a return to grammars.”

The two explanations aren’t incompatible. But the whole business confirms what a chaotic state the Tories are in, despite the impression of stability May created by taking over and putting the stamp of her authority on the government. But this authority will be tested very severely in the months and years ahead.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance