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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.