Tories on the Raac as Labour shuffles the pack

Summer recess at Westminster ended with a bang on Monday amid crisis over crumbling concrete in schools

There was a giddiness around Westminster on Monday as parliament returned following the quietest summer recess in years. But although the vibes were of a first-day-back-at-school variety, the two main parties earned very different report cards with their opening salvos of the session.

Labour leader Keir Starmer probably feels as if he deserves good marks for a ruthless front bench reshuffle. The Conservatives, meanwhile, ran straight into political quicksand, as the government faced criticism for its handling of a crisis over crumbling concrete in schools. Must do better.

The issue of rickety school buildings that contain Raac (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete), which can crumble over time and cause sudden roof collapses, has the potential to engulf the government unless it gets a handle on it quickly. The obvious physical danger to children means that, politically, this is pyrite on steroids.

The charge against the Tories is twofold: that they don’t how many schools are affected, and that they have moved too slowly on the issue. The government rejects claims of inaction and says it will spend “whatever it takes” to fix it.


The UK now faces a bill for remedial works of unknown billions of pounds at a time of acute fiscal strain. The issue has also opened up a delicious seam of attack for Labour heading into the next election: the UK’s infrastructure is literally crumbling after 13 years of Tory government.

Warnings over Raac first emerged in 1994. Urgency grew following a school roof collapse in 2017, and a general warning note for schools followed in 2018. Prime minister Rishi Sunak, when he was chancellor in 2020, provided funding to remediate just 50 schools per year. Some experts wanted the government to move much faster.

Sunak was accused at the weekend of cutting the rebuilding fund at a time when he was asked to double it. His spokesman spent a full 30 minutes at the Westminster lobby briefing on Monday trying to fend off this charge.

More than 150 schools so far have been identified as having Raac and many will have to close for remedial works. It is expected the final number could run into the high hundreds, or maybe even the thousands, of schools affected.

To top matters off, education secretary Gillian Keegan was caught in a hot mic moment on ITV News venting exasperation that too many others are “sitting on their arses” over Raac while she tries to sort out the issue. Who did she mean? Local authorities? School governing bodies? Sunak?

Nobody knows. But it is obvious that if it isn’t seen to get on top of the Raac issue soon, the government’s fragile poll numbers may crumble faster than any concrete.

Meanwhile, over in the red corner, a seemingly well-executed Labour reshuffle means Starmer has chosen his generals for the election battle ahead. He demoted a potential rival, Lisa Nandy, who moves from the shadow levelling up brief to international development.

Levelling up, which is all about lifting deprived areas of the country, has gone to Angela Rayner, Starmer’s rambunctious deputy and a genuine working-class voice in parliament. Her greater prominence may help to counterbalance some of the Labour base’s ambivalence towards Starmer, a knight of the realm.

He also brought several Blairites back into the fold, such as Liz Kendall, signalling a further lurch to the more electable centre and away from the leftist politics that burned the party under Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer also signalled that he would continue to take Northern Ireland seriously, appointing the experienced Hilary Benn to the shadow brief.

The election campaign hasn’t officially started yet. But political fun and games are already well under way.