Tory MPs remain confident that they will force the government into a U-turn over forced academisation. Though departmental sources are pushing back against reports in today’s Financial Times that ministers are putting the brakes on the reforms, they cannot answer the question of how the changes would actually get through the House of Commons. And though David Cameron put up a spirited defence of the policy at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Tory MPs have been saying that they have yet to see the evidence base for forcing schools that may be perfectly successful and stable into changing the way they are run.
The reasons for the rebellion are partly down to the distaste that Conservatives have for trying to fix something that ain’t broke and for imposing policies on local authorities while preaching localism. But there is also another ingredient, which is that Tory MPs are just generally very ill-disciplined at the moment. They know that Labour is in such a mess that they can afford to cause trouble in their own party without worrying about long-term damage. They also feel that the government is totally distracted by the EU referendum to the extent that firstly it is developing bad policies that it hasn’t thought through, and secondly it is more likely to give in to backbench pressure on those policies to stop life becoming any more difficult than it already is during the campaign. And backbenchers are being encouraged to speak out by the general chaos of ministers being able to criticise their own leadership over Europe. Priti Patel’s intervention on school places at the start of this week shows how far ministers are straying into domestic policy – and it also encourages backbenchers to cause trouble on all sorts of issues that have nothing to do with Europe. ‘Collective responsibility has been suspended everywhere,’ says one rebellious type, gleefully.
A government source says there is ‘no change to the plans, we are continuing to engage with backbenchers and address concerns’. But for the plans to make it from their current reasonably safe space of a White Paper into a second reading of a bill on the floor of the House of Commons, something has to give. And it currently doesn’t look as though Tory backbenchers will be the ones who relent.