Ihave a totally unproven theory that Justine Greening took heart from the massed ranks of female rebellion at Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony and refused to do what she was told when finally summoned to Downing Street on Monday night. Either way, time’s up for Theresa, not Justine, I’d say. Greening’s bold refusal to be moved from her role as secretary of state for education in the prime minister’s damp squib of a reshuffle could well prove to be one of the decisive moments in the eventual toppling of Theresa May.
In the short term, however, Greening’s departure is bad news for education and for independent-minded women in Tory politics. The sanctioning of Greening’s departure contrasts painfully with May’s decision to let Jeremy Hunt not just keep his ministerial role but expand it, and the prime minister’s misjudgment over backing Toby Young.
There were reports that May found her secretary of state for education a “patronising” figure who talked too much in cabinet. What? Greening more patronising than Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond? Really? If that was the charge, it was a strange one for a serving prime minister to make, as if she, the boss, were plausibly subject to sexist behaviour from a junior, female colleague.
May ought to have read Mary Beard’s Women and Power ( I can’t believe someone didn’t slip it into her Christmas stocking), where she will find a pithy reminder of the very different ways in which the voices of men and women have been received throughout history.
Once again, May has failed to pick up on the tone of our times. What was 2017 – with its numerous sexual harassment scandals and the answering #MeToo movement – all about if not a chance for us to think more deeply about why so many women steer clear of public life?
I have lost count of the number of women I’ve met, of all ages, who shy away from making a political contribution, because they fear the abuse, the disparagement, the being talked-down-to. Indeed, May’s continuing weakness, now the dominant story of the reshuffle, is a real tragedy: she is in office but not power, acting largely at the behest of privileged, powerful men of the right.
But the reshuffle is also a bad outcome for education. Little is yet known about the new secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, but we do know a bit about the forces ranked against Greening. She clearly lacked enthusiasm for May’s ill-starred and poorly evidenced plans to expand grammar schools: a flagship policy that went down with the general election of June 2017. It was always painful to watch Greening, hitherto a proud advocate of comprehensive education, loyally try to toe the May line on grammar schools promoted by the prime minister’s former aide Nick Timothy, and it often made her public performances disappointingly flat.
In recent months she had begun to pick more of a One Nation way through the post-Gove, post-Brexit, post-election rubble. Unlike previous ministers, she was prepared to talk to the trade unions, was consulting on strengthening teacher qualifications and a new sex education curriculum, and only last week announced a modest budget to promote literacy programmes for disadvantaged students. However, her fate may have been sealed by her scepticism over free schools and the determined promotion of her own “social mobility action plan” (the Tories just will not give up on this jaded term) proposals publicly rubbished by Timothy in the Sun.
In the days and hours running up to her departure, support for Greening within the educational world was surprisingly strong. There was a real anger at the idea that Toby Young might stay and she would go – and not just because of the journalist’s long history of sexist tweets. Unlike Young and numerous others of his ilk, Greening is a Tory who is, at least, prepared to listen rather than lecture, to carefully consider rather than constantly broadcast their own views on everything under the educational sun.
After years of flamboyant and failed initiatives, many of which have brought the sector to a cliff edge in terms of funding, teacher recruitment and morale, a cautious, competent, compromising and courteous Tory education secretary was about the best any of us could hope for.
• Melissa Benn is a freelance journalist and a founder of the Local Schools Network