So that’s prime minister’s questions sorted out for Wednesday lunchtime. Six plain but pointed enquiries from the leader of the opposition to the prime minister about why, when he was chancellor of the Exchequer in 2021, he halved an already inadequate school renovation programme at a time when the risk to life from weakening buildings was not just known but becoming a reality.
We know that Sunak did cut the budget, because we have not one but two statements to that effect, as well as the official stats. It was an appalling decision and one that he has to be made fully accountable for. It is, frankly, the kind of misjudgment that could end a political career. Sunak is doubly lucky no child has been injured as a result if this grim affair.
We should be grateful to the former permanent secretary at the department of education, now turned whistleblower, Jonathan Slater. Slater has given a full and candid account of how the Treasury starved his department of the funds required to guarantee that none of the nation’s children would be hit by lumps of concrete while studying.
His interview on the BBC Today programme makes for painful and shocking listening – and gives timely proof of the previous worth of a strong BBC and independent civil service. Sunak’s fond of talking about professionalism and accountability in public life; well now it’s his turn to tell the truth about his actions to parliament.
In fact, the Treasury was already implicated in this scandal last Friday when the schools minister, Nick Gibb, explained that the education department had indeed asked the Treasury to fund 300 school construction projects when the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) issue became critical – but were granted 50 instead.
Gibb’s remarks initially seemed like a routine exercise in deflecting blame, because it’s easy to throw everything onto the Treasury when your own department was negligent. Gibb was wise enough not to name Sunak, but his account is now corroborated by Slater, and it has the potential to sink Sunak: these are children’s lives and education at stake, after all. There are no excuses.
It may be too late to force Sunak’s resignation if he is indeed found to have done as he is accused, and blundered, because the election is so near and the last thing the country needs is more instability in government. But if Sunak does survive, he will have done so only because it’s too embarrassing for him to go, and he will still be severely damaged as he tries to lead his party into the next election. It’s OK to be a Treasury hard man – but not to take it out on the kids.
Gillian Keegan, education secretary, has been doing her best to apply some helpful spin about how the money spent on repairing schools had been wasteful and with new “modular” systems they can build more and better for less money, and how things are worse in Labour-run Wales – but it’s a flimsy defence. The chasm between the 300-400 school repair projects ideally needed for pupil and teacher safety, versus the mere 50 that were funded, can’t be realistically bridged by improved productivity and value for money.
Saying, as Jeremy Hunt does, that they’ll spend whatever it takes now can’t make up for past failings that created the present mess, and which won’t be cleared up for years. The public would be right to ask why Sunak didn’t spend whatever it would have taken back in 2021 – “repair the roof when the sun is shining”, as the old Tory slogan went.
Makeshift repairs and emergency pillar supports (already a shameful sight in our hospitals) will be the images that will dominate this story over the coming months – damning icons of Tory failures, from 2010 onwards, when investment in capital spending on schools was cut by Cameron, Osborne and Gove.
The scandal is unusually destructive because it goes back so far and implicates the entire party leadership over the whole time they have been in government – the most depressing type of narrative to try to counter.
It is a tale of consistent long-term incompetence and indifference to a vital public service – the years of austerity endured by the public to no great purpose. What, one wonders, have the Tories got to show for their 13 years, beyond Brexit? Sunak will need to do much better than Keegan when he faces the Commons this week and defends their record – and pray that no more classroom ceilings fall down.