Credit where it’s due, Gillian Keegan is a good sport for coming on Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge to face the music over the crumbling schools fiasco – and her four-letter outburst on TV earlier in the day.
The plucky education secretary could have been forgiven for muttering another expletive as she squirmed while Sophy played the clip of her declaring she’d done a “f****** good job” while others sat “on their arses”.
Her discomfort, not surprisingly, has been likened to an episode of the TV satire The Thick Of It, with the accident-prone Ms Keegan compared with the hapless Nicola Murray – a character who lurched from one PR disaster to another.
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All that was missing was Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed Downing Street spin doctor in the TV series, sitting watching her “f****** good job” interview in his office with his head in his hands and shouting obscenities.
But is that fair?
Supporters of Ms Keegan, who left school on Merseyside at 16 and became an apprentice in a car factory, will claim she’s a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy Tory cabinet full of Oxbridge graduates who’ve never had a proper job.
On the other hand, the education secretary could be accused of ignoring Denis Healey’s first law of politics: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”
But the serious point about the school concrete crisis is it makes the government look incompetent and has ruined any hopes Rishi Sunak might have had of getting the new political year and day one of the new term at Westminster off to a good start.
Faced with predictable outrage from opposition MPs – and concerns raised by a number of Conservative MPs – during a Commons statement lasting an hour and 20 minutes, the fearless Ms Keegan once again came out fighting against her critics.
The key charges against her were that she should have acted earlier to deal with the crumbling schools, she’s failed to keep parents informed about whether their children’s schools are open or closed, and that Tory spending cuts are to blame.
One of the most damaging attacks on the government came not from a political appointment but from a retired Whitehall mandarin, Jonathan Slater, who was permanent secretary at the Department for Education from 2016 to 2020.
He claimed in an interview earlier that spending on school repairs was halved by Mr Sunak when he was chancellor – a claim fiercely denied by the PM – and there now was a “critical risk to life” in some schools.
‘What an utter shambles’
Now to be fair, Mr Slater was abruptly dismissed over another fiasco at the education department – the exam grades debacle presided over by then education secretary Gavin Williamson during the COVID pandemic.
So he’s perhaps not unbiased and possibly has an axe to grind.
His claims were not surprisingly seized upon and repeated in the Commons by the shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson, who declared: “What an utter shambles!”
It does indeed look like a shambles, though it’s probably unfair to heap all the blame on the unfortunate Ms Keegan.
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After all, the Tories have had 10 – yes, 10 – education secretaries since the Conservatives came to power – albeit in coalition – in 2010.
Those names in full: Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, Justin Greening, Damian Hinds, Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan, James Cleverly, Kit Malthouse and now the unfortunate Ms Keegan.
But while she may not be solely to blame and has been plucky and a good sport in facing the music, her potty-mouthed attempt to blame others for the fiasco has made a bad situation worse.