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.
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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.