What does everyone think about free schools? That’s the question that is being asked of every Liberal Democrat who has the misfortune to pop up in broadcast interviews today, because it seems that you can now take any position you want on the subject, so long as you’re wearing a certain hat or you’ve got your fingers crossed behind your back.
Ed Davey this morning tried to explain the difference between what David Laws said last week at the despatch box in defence of free schools and what David Laws apparently thinks when he’s not at the despatch box. Davey told the Today programme:
‘He is defending the Government’s position as a Coalition government as he should do, and I understand that. And I’m afraid sometimes in the media people don’t understand that you defend the government line, agreed through collective responsibility in a proper way in a coalition government, but a party leader, preparing for the next election and our manifesto, talking about party policies that have done through a democratic vote at the Liberal Democrat conference, he’s got to put those policies forward and I think he’s right to do so.’
Similarly, Baroness Kramer told the Daily Politics that ‘David plays a ministerial role and he’s playing that ministerial role entirely appropriately in terms of making government policy work as effectively as possible: it’s part of the way coalition works… within a ministerial group you support the line for the department.’
Perhaps someone needs to play these clips to Vince Cable, who has never been quite so assiduous about this collective responsibility business as Laws seems to be. But it’s also not really what Clegg has been pushing for in government anyway: he wanted a sort of ‘sausage machine’ government where the parties were always open about their policy differences from the start, showing as policies develop what they agree and disagree on, before anything is agreed.
The difference here is that Clegg and colleagues have supported and voted for Michael Gove’s school reforms, only really making a fuss about noises from the Conservative party over a possible profit motive in the far-flung future, right up to now. Clegg’s intervention came just after the row over the Al-Madinah free school, when suddenly things didn’t seem quite so free and easy as they once did. It looked like opportunism: Clegg could have highlighted the work that Laws is already doing on supervision of free schools as proof that the Lib Dems are trying to do their thing of making government work better.
But this is not so much sausage machine governing as a kind of governing where you go through the laborious process of making the sausage, cooking it, whacking it in a roll, dousing it with ketchup, and then announcing that you don’t like it because someone has just said that burgers are nicer.