John Crace, Guardian (humourist) columnist – but actually far, far too close to the truth.
“Left hand meet right hand. Just weeks after the prime minister insisted there was no extra spare cash for schools, the education secretary came to the Commons to make a statement on how she had miraculously found more money for schools.
Being a minority government is proving to be a very expensive drug habit for the Tories.
As is traditional with any U-turn, Justine Greening began by saying that everything was basically running brilliantly. Teachers had never been happier, pupils had never been happier.
Then came the but.
But she had listened to the concerns that people had raised during the election and had managed to come up with an extra £1.3bn over the next two years to offset any unfairness in a system that was definitely, totally fair.
“Let me be clear,” she said. “This is additional funding.” She had gone head-to-head with the chancellor, and Freewheelin’ Phil had blinked first. She’d tipped him upside down and a DUP-sized bung had fallen out of his pockets.
Only she hadn’t. At this point, Greening’s triumphal tone became more of the mumble of a remedial reading class. Barely audible were the words “efficiency savings”, “no cost to the taxpayer” and “transparently”.
So much of Greening’s statement had been barely audible that it took a while for the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, to actually make any sense of what had been said.
Justine Greening raids free schools budget for £1.3bn education bailout
It was only after mistakenly welcoming the “new money” that it dawned on her that nothing about the money was new. She hastily corrected herself and inquired where the savings were going to be made. Had the government finally admitted that its free schools programme was a bit of a waste of money?
“We’re not cutting the free schools programme,” Greening replied. The very idea. “It’s just we’re financing it in a different way.”
In a way that it would have £200m less. Even some of her own backbenchers had the grace to look embarrassed by this. Either the education secretary didn’t understand basic maths or she didn’t understand basic English.
Conservative Robert Halfon, the new chair of the education select committee, was quick to spot that, even after cutting £200m from the free schools budget, there was still £1.1bn of savings unaccounted for. Did she have any idea what other programmes she would need to cut?
Not really, Greening replied. There were a lot of different programmes and sooner or later she would get round to working out which ones were pointless and then she’d make the cuts accordingly. All she could promise for now was that the savings would definitely come in at £1.3bn in total.
It was quite some admission, as Greening rather fancies her chances of taking over from Theresa May.
Telling parliament she had been presiding over a government department that has been happily wasting £1.3bn a year, without feeling the need to do anything about it up till now, might not be the smartest job interview. There again, she isn’t up against the stiffest of opposition. The gene pool of available talent in the Conservative party is vanishingly small.
Having basically informed everyone that she wasn’t particularly good at her job, it was little surprise that everything rather went downhill for Greening from then on.
Labour’s Lucy Powell and the Liberal Democrats’ Ed Davey tried to help her out.
Let’s not worry about whether the £1.3bn was new or old money, they said. They understood that difference might be too nuanced for her. Let’s concentrate instead on the fact that £1.3bn is still going to be at least £1.7bn short of the figure the National Audit Office had said was required to maintain funding at its current levels, given rising costs and pupil numbers.
“Er …” Greening struggled. Er … All she could say was that under the new arrangements schools would be getting £1.3bn more than they had been getting an hour ago – apart from those whose budgets had been cut to provide the extra money for all the others – and it would be a big help if people could just be a bit more positive about the announcement.
Not even her own backbenchers could go along with that, and one after the other stood up to inquire if the unfairness in the funding formula would be addressed in their own constituencies.
Greening didn’t seem to have the answer to this. Or anything much. The government is now so weak that even what are intended to be good news statements are going down like a cup of cold sick.”