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Rishi Sunak was forced on to the back foot at the start of the new political year as the crisis over England’s crumbling schools engulfed his government and he braced for two perilous parliamentary by-elections.

The prime minister was on Monday accused by a former senior civil servant of cutting the school buildings budget, while education secretary Gillian Keegan blamed others for the failure to replace dangerous concrete in the country’s classrooms.

“Everyone else has sat there on their arse and done nothing,” she said, in what she believed to be off-camera remarks. Keegan claimed that she had not got the credit for doing a “fucking good job” in tackling the issue.

Sunak is planning an autumn relaunch founded on signs of an economic recovery, but Conservative MPs returned from their 45-day summer break with their party firmly on the defensive.

Sunak’s problems intensified when he learnt that he faces the prospect of two by-elections in normally-safe Tory seats this autumn, with Labour hopeful of winning both.

Chris Pincher, Tory MP for Tamworth, lost his appeal against an eight-week suspension from the House of Commons for drunkenly groping two men last year. The suspension is expected to be endorsed by MPs.

That outcome will trigger a recall petition under which Pincher’s constituents can demand a by-election if 10 per cent of them sign it. He won the seat with a majority of nearly 20,000 at the 2019 general election.

Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries last month finally carried out her threat to quit as Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, and a by-election is expected next month. She won her seat in 2019 with a majority of almost 25,000.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, conducted what was expected to be the final major reshuffle of his top team ahead of the next general election, and promoted several MPs who had prominent roles in Tony Blair’s government.

Pat McFadden, former business minister and an ex-adviser to Blair, will take charge of Labour’s election campaign. He will work alongside Sue Gray, Starmer’s new chief of staff and a former senior civil servant, in preparing Labour for power.

Starmer’s allies tried to contrast the smooth Labour reshuffle with the chaos in Sunak’s party. “This adds to an ‘end of days’ feel — there’s a sense of a government that has run out of ideas and run out of time,” said one.

Sunak carried out a mini-reshuffle last week and revamped his Number 10 team as he prepares for a Conservative conference next month at which he hopes to set out a new agenda for Britain.

But on Monday Sunak was again dragged back to the past, as Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, accused him of starving schools of funds to repair disintegrating buildings.

Slater said his former department warned the government in 2018 that 300 to 400 schools needed to be rebuilt each year because they featured reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, which has a limited design life and means that buildings are at risk of collapse.

“We weren’t just saying there was a significant risk of fatality, we were saying there was a critical risk to life if this programme is not funded,” he told the BBC.

Slater added that the government at the time offered money to replace only 100 schools a year.

He said that after a government spending review was completed in 2020, when Boris Johnson was prime minister and Sunak was chancellor, a decision was taken to halve the rebuilding programme further, from 100 schools a year to just 50, even though his department wanted to double the figure to 200.

Sunak said one of the first things he did as chancellor was announce a 10-year rebuilding programme for 500 schools, equating to 50 a year. Downing Street said this was broadly in line with the delivery of new schools in the previous decade.

Sunak said it was “completely and utterly wrong” to say he had failed to adequately fund schools repairs. Number 10 said the number of schools affected by the dangerous concrete would be “in the hundreds, not the thousands”.

Keegan was forced to apologise for her “choice language” in her “off the cuff” remarks, which were broadcast by ITV News.

The education secretary said she had not meant to blame anyone in particular for being “sat on their arse”, adding that she was taking “tough decisions” to rectify school defects which had been known about for decades.

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