Tom Richmond: PM takes lesson from Blair in a bid to woo Ukip voters

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IMITATION, it is invariably said, is the sincerest form of flattery and David Cameron’s education reforms this week come straight from the Tony Blair school of politics.

Blair was the past master at coming up with policy whims, however impractical, to divert attention away from more pressing political problems and Cameron clearly hopes his new blueprint on school standards will prove to Ukip supporters that he is the only leader of substance ahead of the general election.

The Cameron doctrine – a hit squad to tackle coasting schools in middle-class areas, new powers for school inspectors and plans to broaden the role of Britain’s best teachers – also came straight from the Blair policy manual.

I’ve lost count of the number of occasions in the past two decades when a party leader has come up with a plan along these lines – and the Prime Minister did not disappoint when he spoke of his paternal pride at taking his four-year-old daughter Florence to school for the first time.

It is a critical point. If these plans were actually working, and driving up standards, why do they have to be dusted off and revised every few months? I suspect political opportunism is the answer.

Having praised the Tory leader’s aspiration agenda and party conference pledge to eradicate youth unemployment, – a very noble ambition, I’d be more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt if he explained how he intended to reduce rates of truancy which are still scandalously high in spite of New Labour making it possible for parents to be jailed if their children skipped lessons on a regular basis.

I also want to know how the next Tory government intends to make parents more responsible, and accountable, for their children’s academic progress – Channel Four’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Educating The East End has, like Educating Yorkshire last year, shown the challenges teachers face 
on a daily basis dealing with unruly pupils.

They should not have to put up with such shocking standards of behaviour.

One final point needs to be made. If the Tories want regional school inspectors to have a greater remit, why have they dropped reforms that would have allowed Ofsted to carry out “no notice” inspections at schools?

If issues of classroom behaviour are to be addressed, this approach might have revealed the true scale of the problem rather than giving headteachers scope to take pre-emptive action, and remove known trouble-makers from lessons, before the inspectors arrive.

As such, three words that regularly feature on school reports sum up David Cameron’s intervention: “Could do better.”

THE decision of one-time postman Alan Johnson, the Hull West and Hessle MP, to turn his back on front line politics is more disappointing when one looks at the list of preening Shadow Ministers lining up to replace Ed Miliband if the Labour leader falls on his sword.

There’s the shrill and charmless Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper (Mrs Ed Balls); there’s the NHS scaremonger and Tory tormentor-in-chief Andy Burnham who provided a woefully inadequate response to the Mid Staffs scandal when he was Health Secretary and then there’s the self-promoting Chuka Umunna who was 36 years young yesterday and who regards himself as Britain’s Barack Obama.

As Gordon Brown’s one-time media advisor Damian McBride observed this week: “The lack of sensible counsel from senior colleagues is showing. Loyalists such as John Denham, John Healey and Peter Hain have walked away in despair. Wise hands such as Alan Johnson and Peter Mandelson have not thus far been persuaded back, not least because Mr Miliband will not lower himself to ask.”

It probably explains why Miliband continues to wobble along by default. There is no one, apart from Johnson, who is likely to improve Labour’s credibility and appeal in the short-term.

ALL is still not well, I hear on the grapevine, with Thirsk and Malton Conservatives following the de-selection of sitting MP Anne McIntosh in favour of local estate agent Kevin Hollinrake.

One reason is an enlightening article by McIntosh, chairman of Parliament’s environment select committee, in The Yorkshire Post last week in which she highlighted the plight of dairy farmers and the additional measures required to prevent their incomes being further squeezed by the major supermarkets.

Some now harbour doubts about the wisdom of forcing out an experienced MP who is in a position to shape rural affairs policy – the driver of the Ryedale economy – in favour of a mild-mannered backbencher who will, in all likelihood, be forced to obey the wishes of the Tory whips if David Cameron wins the election with a narrow majority – or has to form a coalition with another party.

There’s also the small question of whether McIntosh chooses to stand as an independent or is persuaded to go quietly with the tempting offer of a peerage.

Interesting times await, not least as party activists selecting candidates elsewhere decide whether they want a backbencher – or a political high-flyer.

A YOUNG footballer with no medals or trophies of note to his name, Raheem Sterling, declines to start an England international because of tiredness. It’s a good job that this attitude did not prevail amongst the Armed Forces during two world wars. There was no time to be tired on the battlefields of the Somme or you would be dead. Perhaps Sterling would like to reflect upon this during the upcoming remembrance commemmorations – and acknowledge his good fortune in comparison to his forebears. Or is he likely to buckle under the workload?

IT is revealed by Boris Johnson, who has written a new appreciation of Sir Winston Churchill, that the wartime leader gave a damehood to a Ministry of Defence cleaning lady who found a file marked “Top Secret” in the gutter on her way home and asked her on to return it immediately. It was the battle orders for Anzio and the unlikely heroine featured on Churchill’s resignation honours list. What is not known, however, is the fate of the officer who was so careless in the first place.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk