It looks like there will be an announcement, early in the coming week, that will bring the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme to an end. Some projects will continue to a finish (they are too far down the line to halt) but there will be a number being curtailed before the first foundations have been laid.
Putting aside the impact this has on our nation’s future (for the moment), some of the disappointed losers look like they will fall within the constituencies of prominent Lib-Dems. They will have some explaining to do to their constituents, many of whom will be rightly baffled at how a school can be ‘vital’ one minute and unnecessary the next. And this is not, it seems, a saving in the name of deficit-cutting – BSF funds may be re-allocated to the Academies programme (or worse, free schools!)
A quick look at the areas where projects are incomplete – and therefore most likely to be for the chop – suggests Ed Davey (Kingston), Sarah Teather (Brent) and Paul Burstow (Sutton) – among others – will have to hastily consult their well-thumbed Lib-Dem guide entitled: ‘How to avoid taking responsibility for anything mainly by shifting the blame to other relevant parties, particularly Labour but sometimes the Conservatives depending on the situation’.
In this case, they can’t, unfortunately for them, claim they didn’t know (or say this has been sprung upon them because of the deficit in Greece or a drop in the Turkmenistani Manat; or whatever improbable excuse they are now wheeling out for shifting, within hours, from a party that thought immediate spending cuts were disastrous to one that was happy to grab the other end of Osbournes two-man public-sector-chopping saw). No, this was a cut they knew was going to come because the Conservatives said so before the election.
Sarah Teather (the Lib-Demmer who is now Minister for Children and Families), now happily working alongside Nick Gibb (the Conservative Schools Minister), may find it particularly difficult to explain away these (and future) cuts: she made some remarkably bold claims about a ‘massive’ cash injection for schools, if the Lib-Dems had their way. As James Powney points out, she didn’t mention BSF cuts in any of her election leaflets. If I was a constituent, I’d be watching closely to see whether this ‘massive’ spending injection materialises and I would be very sceptical about the impact of the pupil premium in areas like Brent (fodder for another blog post, I think).
Of course, we should not underestimate the ability of Lib-Demmers to twist their way out of a tight spot and, as is their wont, peer down on the murky reality of decision-making from their high-yellow ground. We only have to look to David Laws (remember him?) for evidence of this ability to sing different tunes to different audiences. In a classic bout of pre-election Lib-Demmery, Laws managed to describe the BSF as ‘crucial’, express concern that those nasty Tories would take money out of school-building and – get this – also say the Lib Dems would be ‘reviewing’ BSF anyway. It’s the talent for simultaneously holding all possible positions on a single issue that makes the Lib Dems such an infuriating bunch.
How long will they be able to sustain this “you name it, we’ll sing it” approach to politics? Their abandonment of Building Schools for the Future may well leave them struggling to hold their note; their previously forgiving audience may well start to heckle with the cry: “we didn’t vote for this!”.