Why Gove gets a free ride from the press

The Education Secretary provides hard-pressed hacks with a steady stream of headlines.

What is it about Michael Gove? He must have some kind of special power. You wouldn’t think it to look at him – or listen to him, or read anything he’s written. Or if you’d seen his policies. (Or if you hadn’t.) And yet, here it is: his stock grows by the day, thanks to a shower of bouquets from people who seem to be otherwise intelligent enough folk. What on earth is going on?

There are people – real people – who’ll tell you that Gove could be the next Prime Minister. And they’re not joking. You sit there waiting for the punchline, and it doesn’t come. There is no punchline: Gove as Prime Minister is the punchline. Except they don’t mean it as a joke: they really can see it as a credible concept.

I can see why lifelong Tories might have much fondness for Gove: while Andrew Lansley’s health reforms see him widely vilified and hung out to dry by pretty much everyone, Gove potters along with his education reforms, taking us one step nearer Voucher Schools and privatised education, and no-one really minds. He says the right things about the 1950s and grammar schools, and everyone leaves him untouched.

But it’s as if he’s untouchable. Every day seems to bring a new initiative about schools plucked from the ether: if it’s not pompously prefaced King James Bibles, it’s counting in Roman numerals, forcing five-year-olds into phonics tests or learning poems by heart. It’s tempting to wonder there might be a Heath Robinson "ideas machine" in Gove’s office that spews out a new half-baked proposal every day to add to the ever-growing list – every single one of which find glowing approval.

Naturally, you expect your Howard Jacobsons, your Toby Youngs, to lap it all up: Toby, of course, has his own glorious Free School project to think of, and to thank Gove for. (Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition in an article about education. Shoot me.) But what of others? Notwithstanding the heroic Gove demolition that is Michael Rosen’s wonderful blog, criticism of Gove in the mainstream seems surprisingly thin on the ground.

I should declare an interest, by the way. Like Gove, I am a former journalist and, like him, I’ll be working in education soon, as I’m off to commence studying a PGCE in the autumn. I’m afraid I haven’t served in the forces and I went to a "rubbish university" (as Gove’s sidekick, schools minister Nick Gibb, might put it) but somehow I still want to do it. The children of tomorrow will have to make do with this former state school scumbag instead of someone who’s proper clever and that.

By the time I get to the chalkface proper, I wonder what will have changed. One thing’s almost a certainty: Gove will have coasted along nicely with his lovely, cushy ride, never getting fiercely criticised for his plucked-from-the-air policies other than by teachers (and who cares what they think?). So the question remains: what is it about this man that enables him to elude some kind of wider scrutiny, leading to bewilderingly high approval ratings from his own party, and not a great deal of opprobrium from elsewhere?

Well, I think there are several factors. Firstly, I think he’s got the advantage of being on the front foot. He’s always talking about reform and improvement. Whether the things he’s doing will be reforms or improvements is debatable, but if he presents them as such, with full ministerial authority and the primacy of the government position, his opponents will struggle to look like anything other than stick-in-the-mud naysayers, impeding improvements for children.

Secondly, there’s a good deal of consensus between Labour and the Conservatives on education. Free Schools are a natural progression from New Labour model of Academies. It’s hard, then, to find some genuine conflict between the two main parties on the broad strokes of education policy – and with the Liberal Democrats hamstrung in coalition, you can see why Gove might get a free ride.

True, but why do his more bizarre or non-evidence-based ideas – the roman numerals, the Bibles, and all of that – get such a free ride? I think that’s down to the most important factor of all: Gove is a former journalist. In one sense there’s a rule that you don’t go after your own – it could explain why Boris Johnson is similarly praised for similar lack of achievements (and similarly touted as a future Prime Minister).

But it goes beyond that, I think. Gove may be eccentric, but he’s not stupid. He knows what he’s doing with this drip-drip of information about new wheezes and new schemes: he’s providing hard-pressed journos with an open goal. Need to natter about something on a slow news day? Oh look, a new education initiative from the 1950s. Need a wedge of quick copy when there’s not a load else about? Oh look, a new education initiative from the 1950s. And so it goes.

Gove knows what he’s doing. He’s fluffing the easy-to-please Tory grassroots and grandstanding to the sympathetic columnists, all the while providing a steady stream of underarm bowling to headline-hunting hacks in a hurry. At all of that, he’s decidedly competent, occasionally bordering on the excellent. At knowing stuff about how to educate, maybe not so good.

But since when was it about that?

Education Secretary Michael Gove waves to photographers as he arrives to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry on 29 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories