A totally pointless Tory debate

VANITY versus pathos - that's the level to which British political debate has descended in the dying embers of Tony Blair's premiership. David Cameron condemned the Prime Minister for behaving like a pop star during a farewell tour while crises piled.

By Graham Dines

VANITY versus pathos - that's the level to which British political debate has descended in the dying embers of Tony Blair's premiership.

David Cameron condemned the Prime Minister for behaving like a pop star during a farewell tour while crises piled. The Conservative leader said the extended hand-over period was “rapidly becoming absurd,” arguing that Mr Blair's foreign visits were merely “indulging his vanity”.

“In this country, we don't do 'farewell tours','' he said. “Tony Blair was elected to be the Prime Minister of our country, not a pop star.”


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However, Mr Cameron's policy confirmation on grammar schools - which was greeted by an outpouring of anger within the Tory Party - allowed Mr Blair to hit back and accuse the Conservative leader of distracting attention from tensions within his own party.

“He's flailing around a bit because he has his own problems internally,” snapped Mr Blair. “It's a little bit pathetic.”

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Mr Blair said he did not “just stick my thumb in the air” to choose a departure date. “I am doing things for the country that I am in the middle of and that I am going to complete.

“We have a G8 summit; I presume he's not saying Britain should not be represented at all. I am working on a climate change deal there, it's important that we do this as a country.”

The timetable agreed for the Blair resignation assumed a leadership election would take place and took no account of Labour rallying behind Mr Brown. It is an unprecedented situation. By tradition, the handover of power in the UK is swift and brutal - with no time for sentiment, as there is in the US when the constitution clearly lays down how transition should be handled.

When the Tories knifed Mrs Thatcher, she only remained PM because the Conservative Party had not elected a successor. The country would have been leaderless if she had quit immediately. But Labour has a new leader and recognising that, Blair should do the decent thing and go now.

As for the Tory contretemps over grammar schools, Mr Cameron is not changing policy - he signalled during his leadership campaign 18 months ago that he wanted no extension of the 11-plus.

No matter how much senior Tories - including ex-leader Michael Howard - may huff and puff, the Conservatives have never pledged to replace comprehensives with grammar schools. Those on the right of the party may believe the expansion of selective education is an article of faith for the Tories, but are the Tory controlled counties and unitary authorities queuing up to fund new grammars? No.

Did the last three failed opposition leaders William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Mr Howard march around the barricades bellowing “bring back grammar schools”? No.

David Cameron has gauged the public is in no mood to change education policy on grammar schools and has simply reiterated party policy which has been in place since the 1970s.

Writing on the Tory Party website, Mr Cameron says it's a pointless debate about something that the Conservative Party did not do when it was last in office and will not do when it is next in office.

“National selection was abolished because it was deeply unpopular with parents, who didn't want their children to be divided into successes and failures at the age of eleven. That's why in 18 years of Conservative government, neither Margaret Thatcher nor John Major created grammar schools. That's why Conservative MPs and candidates in areas without grammar schools do not campaign for them to be brought back.

“If they did, parents would be left asking what happens to the large majority of children who don't make the grade - and those parents would be right. Far from being some winning slogan, a pledge to build more grammar schools would be an electoral albatross.

“That's why Labour wants to hang it round our neck. They know it keeps us from joining and leading the real debate over their failure on standards, discipline and opportunity for all.”

To old Etonian Cameron, his opponents in the party are guilty of “a kind of hopelessness” in demanding a return to grammars, assuming the UK “will only ever be able to offer a decent education to a select few. I want the Conservative Party to rise above that attitude.

“Of course, we fully support existing grammar schools. But it cannot be the limit of our ambition for some children to get a decent education.”

Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley commented: “There are not many things in politics which puzzle me. But making a fuss over an issue which has not been party policy for more than three decades certainly does.”

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