I tried to reach Michael Gove on Tuesday shortly after the news broke that he’d been moved to the Whips’ Office. I’m quite relieved he never called back, because my intention was to offer my condolences, never a good idea when a friend suffers a setback. I know from experience that any expression of pity when some calamity befalls you only makes it ten times worse. ‘Oh Christ,’ you think. ‘Is it really that bad?’
In Gove’s case, I don’t think it is. He achieved more in his four years as Education Secretary than his predecessors did in 40. Given the hostility of the education establishment to even the mildest of reforms, it’s remarkable he lasted that long.
In truth, the antagonism of people like Christine Blower, the general secretary of the NUT, was never a problem for Gove. As Dominic Cummings, his former special adviser, has said more than once, opposition in Downing Street was always more of a problem than the opposition of the teaching unions.
It wasn’t David Cameron that was the problem, so much as people like Nick Clegg and Edward Llewellyn whispering in his ear. They didn’t like Gove’s revolutionary rhetoric or his confrontational style and often found themselves being used as conduits for complaints from people he had upset — junior Lib Dem ministers, for instance, or senior DfE officials.
I was never privy to private conversations between Gove and the Prime Minister, but always got the impression that he pretended to be exasperated with his troublesome Education Secretary, but in reality accepted that it was impossible for Gove to see through his reform programme without ruffling a few feathers. So long as Gove retained the support of Cameron, he was safe, regardless of how many letters education ‘experts’ wrote to the Guardian.
But the Prime Minister’s patience clearly ran out. Gove picked too many fights. It’s one thing upsetting the numerous individuals and groups with a vested interest in defending the status quo, but did he really have to antagonise Theresa May? If Spitting Image was still going, you can imagine a Gove puppet barrelling into the cabinet room, pint of lager in hand, and shouting ‘What you staring at?’ to no one in particular.
Gove’s critics (including Clegg) have always tried to portray this as a personality defect — a joie de guerre that is more suited to a battalion commander than a senior politician. In fact, it’s just a consequence of the fact that he’s a man of conviction. He has such a strongly held set of beliefs that he finds it impossible to hold back when confronted with someone who doesn’t share them — or, worse, professes to share them, but then does something completely at odds with them. The failure of senior Home Office civil servants to ‘drain the swamp’ is a case in point.
In a sense, Gove’s downfall as Education Secretary was inevitable. In order to reverse 50 years of decline in England’s public education system, Cameron needed someone with unshakeable convictions and a will of iron — a politician steely enough to see through a set of reforms that would result in protestors burning effigies of him up and down the country. But, not surprisingly, a man like that would also say things, both in private and in public, that would get his colleagues’ backs up and require a greater and greater expenditure of political capital to protect. And Cameron never had that much political capital to begin with.
As someone at the coalface of education reform, I am disappointed to see Gove moved. Will his successor, Nicky Morgan, have the courage to stand behind the unpopular measures he has introduced? The fate of the nation’s schoolchildren is in the balance. But if I were the Prime Minister, I probably would have stuck Gove in the Whips’ Office too. Not only will be forced to rein himself in — his job will be to put out fires, not to start them — but he’ll have more time to devote to defending the government’s programme in the run-up to the next election. And few senior cabinet ministers have Gove’s ready wit and debating flair. When you’re on a war footing, you want Gove in the command bunker, plotting the enemy’s downfall.
I will miss having a man of his quality in my corner. But I’m certainly going to enjoy watching him make mincemeat of Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman over the next few months.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.