When I blogged earlier this year about James Duddridge’s constituency surgery, exclusively for Halifax customers, I was clear that in my view it wasn’t malicious, simply a fairly sizeable lapse in judgement.
As I outlined last week, I don‘t think Mr Duddridge’s judgement generally speaking is particularly impressive. He has managed to alienate not only large sections of his electorate, but a not insignificant part of his local activist base.
Much of this falls into the “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” camp. True, I am a Labour activist. True, I am not a fan of Mr Duddridge. And true, I am very much hoping to see him replaced by Ian Gilbert next May. But read on, if you will, as I unfold the pages of another example of the question marks hovering over James Duddridge’s judgement.
Now, bear with me. This is a somewhat more complex tail than a snapped photo of a smoking-gun poster in a bank branch. And it starts, predictably on Twitter. James Duddridge has, of late, been getting better at Twitter. His CCHQ scripted tweets have lessened, and although he was a little too eager to boast how much he was in Newark the few weeks past, he seems to be trialling a sense of humour. But a little while back he retweeted this tweet from law firm Tolhurst Fisher:
Tolhurst Fisher is a local law firm, so there is nothing particularly odd here. And it is Conservative policy for as many schools to become academies as possible, moving from local authority control to Michael Gove’s personal direction. So Grant Shapps is probably nodding approvingly at that.
But what starts to make this interesting is the fact that one of the partners of Tolhurst Fisher is Nigel Holdcroft; the same Nigel Holdcroft who was, until May 22nd of this year, the Conservative leader of Southend Borough Council. I have only spoken to Nigel once, very briefly at the election count. His blog, however, is fascinating — if predictably tribal — reading.
The link that was tweeted, to the Tolhurst Fisher page on academies, contains a further link to a “guide” on the subject. In that guide it references one Edward Garston, an Associate Solicitor from the Corporate Department. This is pure speculation, but there are two Councillors Garston on Southend Borough Council — a father (David — Southchurch ward) and a son (Jonathan — Milton ward). I don’t think Garston is that common a name, so I start to wonder.
At any rate, what we have here is a Tory-linked law firm being promoted by a Tory MP. But promoted in relation to what? Well, the academy scheme was initially introduced by the last Labour government as a last resort for the worst failing schools. It gives increased autonomy to the head and the governors, and takes the school out of local authority control. Fine as a hail Mary, but as a matter of course it is dangerous. The recent Birmingham “trojan horse schools” scandal shows up some of the problems with that lack of oversight.
But more troubling — to me — is the idea of a law firm profiteering from the education system. Sure I can understand that such a big change might necessitate certain advice, but I do believe that the money in the education budget should be spent on…well, education. And I’m not sure that the parliamentary representative of the people of Southend should necessarily be helping a law firm linked to his party to make a profit off the money which is meant to educate their children.