by Stephen Tall on September 21, 2010
That’s the Channel 4 News headline tonight, and it seems a fair reflection of Nick Clegg’s interview with Jon Snow this evening:
As I tried to explain in my speech yesterday, some of the misgivings expressed in the conference hall I genuinely think slightly misunderstand what the government policy is going to do. I think there is a misunderstanding bluntly between what the free schools proposal is alleged to be trying to do and what it will actually do. It won’t be taking resources and people and attention away from other schools… and crucially, as I stressed in my speech yesterday, it won’t do what would be genuinely divisive. It won’t be introducing selection through the back door, which I’m staunchly opposed to.”
You can see Nick’s interview here:
This can be seen as either brave or stubborn stuff from Nick.
The Lib Dem leadership was overwhelmingly defeated by conference delegates in the free schools debate yesterday, and though it will not affect the Coalition agreement it was certainly a setback for those at the top of the party who want to see local authority control of education passed on to parents and independent groups.
Nick could have dropped any reference to free schools from his conference speech: he very consciously did not. He did, however, reach out to highlight the agreement between the Coalition and those Lib Dems opposed to free schools on the most totemic issue of them all: no return to selection.
On Radio 5 Live yesterday, I repeated my belief that Nick’s speech was mainly about reassuring both party members and the wider public. Interestingly, Jon Pienaar took a very different view: that this was Nick challenging the Lib Dems, leading from the front — even standing up to — the party in a way no-one had had the authority to try since Paddy Ashdown. I’m still not wholly convinced that’s what Nick’s trying to do: after all, he is now responsible for two sets of policy these days… Coalition policy and Lib Dem policy, and sometimes in that order.