Way to school. Two angry teenage boys
Artillery Row

Off the Wales

The Conservatives are struggling to find any way to make themselves look good

There were under a dozen Conservative MPs in place on Tuesday afternoon as Schools Minister Nick Gibb rose to discuss the latest mess at the Department for Education. Kit Malthouse, who was Education Secretary during the Liz Truss Weeks, had an entire bank of seats to himself. 

On Monday evening, the chamber had been packed and the debate full of emotion as MPs discussed the crisis in Israel. Now it was sprawling room everywhere, a return to normal service, the happy days of gentle domestic government incompetence, generating only the most minor levels of outrage. It was, shamefully, a bit of a relief. 

Besides, as Gibb explained, this was barely a scandal at all. “An error made by officials” meant that schools had been told they’d be getting more money next year than they actually will. Each school is down by around one teacher’s salary each. It would, he acknowledged, be “difficult” and “frustrating”, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Frankly, he seemed surprised he was even there.

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson begged to disagree. “It is shambolic, it is chaotic, and our children deserve a lot better,” she began. Had the error been kept quiet until after Tory conference, she asked? Gibb viewed this suggestion as nonsense: the entire theme of the conference was that the Conservatives have ruined everything and are unfit to govern, so it’s hard to see why ministers would have deliberately held back a piece of news that so clearly proved the point so many of them seemed so keen to make. She went on: school roofs were falling in, the department was a mess, the government was a disaster.

Gibb is a genial fellow, who has been schools minister, with interruptions, for much of the time the Conservatives have been in office. He was unmoved by Phillipson. Things are going terribly well in schools, he said. Really very few of them, he explained, have been judged unsafe for teaching. 

Labour’s Barry Sheerman called the whole thing a “total cock-up” — the Speaker didn’t even blink at that language — and angrily demanded Gibb resign. The minister ignored that, explaining that while everything is going well in England, it’s all a disaster in Labour-run Wales. 

If Wales didn’t exist, the Conservatives would have to invent it

If Wales didn’t exist, the Conservatives would have to invent it. The place is, at least in their rhetoric, a disaster zone, where feral gangs roam, setting upon unwary travellers from idyllic England and stealing their organs, which are in better condition than Welsh ones due to the brilliantly-managed English NHS. 

To another part of the United Kingdom, then, where things are, it turns out, going even better. In Aberdeen the First Minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, was addressing the Scottish National Party’s conference. The good news is that everything in Scotland is marvellous: schools, hospitals, the lot. Experiences that readers may have had to the contrary are examples of false consciousness. 

The best part of Yousaf’s speech was the most personal, when he spoke about family members trapped in Gaza. His proposal that the UK offer to take in Palestinian refugees was surely sincerely meant, even though he must know there is no possibility of it being taken up in London. 

But the most surprising moment came towards the end, when he announced plans to raise money in international debt markets. “By the end of this parliament the SNP government will — subject of course to due diligence and market testing — go directly to the international bond market for the first time in our own right,” he announced. “To fund vital infrastructure like affordable housing projects, we will issue Scotland’s first ever bond.”

Aside from the slight to longtime SNP backer Sean Connery, the strange thing about this announcement was the reception it got in the hall, the applause and cheers as he said it rising to a great roar of approval. I spent a long time working for the world’s leading financial news service, and even I have never heard anyone this excited about government debt issuance. 

There was, sadly, no more detail, but I have a small suggestion. UK Treasury bonds, which used to be issued as certificates with gilded edges, are known as “gilts”. Scottish government debt will hopefully be tartan-fringed, and should surely be called “kilts”. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover