As the dust settles on election battlegrounds all around the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party emerge more than a little worse for wear.
This is not because the Conservatives have done particularly badly in the elections. In fact the opposite is true; they have overcome years in the political wilderness in Scotland to become the official opposition. Meanwhile, Labour slumped to third place in Scotland and became the first opposition party to fail to gain council seats in England in a midterm election since 1985. All of this happened despite the Tories being in the grips of a party civil war on Europe.
Instead, the reason for this Tory malaise is yet another climb down on education – this time on forced academisation. One does not need a particularly long memory to remember Nicky Morgan reaffirming her commitment to the policy during an Education Select Committee evidence session on 27 April, or to remember, just a day earlier, David Cameron asserting that forced academisation would appear in the Queen’s speech during PMQs. Indeed, it has only been two months since the policy made its first official appearance in the 2016 Education White Paper: Educational Excellence Everywhere.
No doubt the announcement dropping forced academisation was timed to coincide with election fever at its peak, but no amount of vote counting, however absorbing, can hide what amounts to a significant and embarrassing U-turn.
Now that forced academisation has gone the same way as the reception baseline, and following the embarrassment around the cancellation of the KS1 Spelling and Grammar tests, what does the future hold for Nicky Morgan and the Conservatives?
Nicky Morgan must be worried. Her department has presided over a number of embarrassing failures and U-turns and there is still an ongoing feud over SATs, which has already seen children withheld from school in protest over the content of the tests. It is difficult to see how her position can remain tenable.
There is a wider implication for the Conservative party. David Cameron has recently taken to identifying “patterns of behaviour” in opposition politicians (most recently to cast aspersions over Sadiq Khan’s “association” with terrorists). But there is now a clear pattern of behaviour emerging in his own party: a consistent failure to engage with stakeholders on controversial issues. From the junior doctors’ strike to talks of industrial action by teachers to rollbacks on tax credits, there is a clear sense that his policies are made with little regard to those they affect.
So far, David Cameron has used his ministers as sacrificial lambs, allowing them to accumulate ill will for unpopular policies and then moving them on when it becomes too much. Chris Grayling and Michael Gove have already fallen; Nicky Morgan and Jeremy Hunt look to be following close behind.
At some point, unpopular Conservative policies have to reflect on David Cameron. With the number of U-turns, fall outs, and strikes piling up, Cameron looks increasingly vulnerable. He presides over a party at war with itself on Europe while a fully-fledged leadership struggle simmers on in the background.
The Conservatives are already gearing up for life after Cameron; it does not take such a great leap of the imagination to see his position challenged before the end of his last term, regardless of the result of the EU referendum.