Ministers believe Gavin Williamson has one “last chance” to save his Cabinet career when schools reopen, as some of the country’s biggest education unions brand him their “useful idiot”.
After clinging on to his post in the wake of the exams fiasco, the education secretary is now committed to doing “everything necessary” to ensure pupils are back in the classroom in nine days’ time.
While Downing Street insists that Boris Johnson maintains full confidence in Mr Williamson, a number of Cabinet ministers believe the return of pupils will be “the test” which ultimately decides his fate.
However, Mr Williamson now faces the daunting challenge of attempting to keep his critics in the education sector onside, having faced an onslaught of criticism over his handling of A-level and GCSE results.
His task is likely to be made harder by union leaders, one of whom revealed they deliberately refrained from calling for his resignation because “when your enemies make a mistake, why interrupt them.”
“We had a meeting with another union and we’re in complete agreement, we don’t want him to go because he’s a very useful idiot for us,” they told The Telegraph. “We don’t want him to be sacked.
“We have a parlously weak education secretary, but that at least does allow other figures in the education sector to be heard.”
While the unions currently back the plan for full school reopenings in September, their opposition to all pupils returning in July was considered integral to ministers being forced to shelve their original plans.
Their private calculations are now likely to fuel fresh concern within Downing Street as to whether they can be kept on side, should the Covid-19 infection rate accelerate again in the coming weeks.
Hitting back on Saturday night, a Government source said: “Getting all children back to school at the start of term is a national priority. That’s what the unions should be focused on rather than playing political games.”
In a bid to ensure that the reopening goes smoothly, Mr Johnson will conduct a school visit as he leads a major Government publicity blitz designed to convince parents that schools are safe to send their children back to.
His decision to take a personal role in the drive has been welcomed by senior Tory MPs, who believe that widespread anger at Mr Williamson has left him unable to lead the drive.
“Boris needs to lead this, because Gavin is so badly damaged,” one said on Saturday night. “Boris has got the charisma and wherewithal that is needed to make sure this goes smoothly.”
However, a senior Cabinet minister warned that the pressure would remain on Mr Williamson to deliver, adding: “We’ve got to get schools back. That’s the test for him.”
A second said Mr Williamson needed to show he had a “hands-on grip of your department”, while a third minister said: “I think schools are his last chance.”
Others believe that the education secretary is already living on borrowed time and suggest that he is now likely to be moved to another department in a reshuffle early next year.
On Saturday night, it was reported that Mr Williamson had cancelled a meeting to go on holiday the week before A-level results were due to be released.
According to The Sunday Times, three officials have claimed that he was away in the week beginning Aug 3 in the seaside town of Scarborough, where he has family.
A Whitehall source told the paper it was “surprising” that Mr Williamson was “missing in action”. But senior Government sources insisted he had taken part in Zoom calls with the Prime Minister and other ministers while he was away and had been working.
It is not only the Cabinet that is monitoring the situation closely.
Graham Brady, the chairman of the powerful 1922 committee of Tory backbench MPs, along with members of its executive, are said to be deeply concerned that the Government has been badly damaged by the exams debacle.
“My colleagues and I are very annoyed to put it mildly about the position we are in,” one senior 1922 source said.
“If reopening of schools doesn’t go well then I’d be amazed if he lasted longer than a week. He’s well versed in the intrigue of parliament, so he will know his days are numbered.”
There is also ongoing speculation over the future of the exams regulator Ofqual, which has faced widespread condemnation over the algorithm used to calculate students’ grades.
While Downing Street and Whitehall sources insist there are no plans to axe the watchdog, in the long-term, many believe it inevitable that ministers will seek to make it more directly accountable to the education secretary.
“More accountability is never a bad thing,” one added.