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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The top 10 reasons Brexit isn't working, according to Brexiteers

We'd have got away with it, if it weren't for that pesky Mark Carney. 

Over the next few years, it is likely that the economy will shrink, that the entire government will be consumed by trade negotiations at the expense of every other priority, and that EU leaders will use their considerable negotiation advantages to theatrically screw us. As this unpretty story unfolds, those who argued confidently for Brexit, in parliament and in the press, will feel compelled to maintain that they were right, and that if it hadn’t been for some other impossible-to-foresee factor everything would be going splendidly. What follows is an attempt to anticipate the most predictable post-rationalisations; I’m sure there will be more creative efforts.

1. WHITEHALL SABOTAGE. If we’re making no progress in trade negotiations, that’s because the civil service is doing its best to scupper a successful Brexit. That power-crazed madman Jeremy Heywood will stop at nothing to ensure he is bossed by Brussels, and the snooty bastards at the Treasury are working to subvert the national will out of spite. Even as our finest ministers strive manfully to cut Britannia free of its enslaving chains, all they hear from functionaries is “It’s a bit more complicated than that”. It’s only complicated because they want it to be.
 

2. REMAINERS TALKING DOWN THE COUNTRY. God knows we tried to reach out to them, with our gently teasing admonitions for being elitist snobs who just needed to get over it. But did they concede that a glorious future is at hand, if only we all wish for it? No, my friends, they did not. Instead, they sulkily point out how the things they predicted would happen are in fact happening, as if this somehow proves they were right. And since, inexplicably, the world agrees them, the whiners’ prophecy is being fulfilled.
 

3. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY. It appears the UK economy has sunk into a recession. Now, the whiners will tell you that this has got something to do with the vast uncertainty created by taking a fundamental decision about the nation’s future without a clue about how to implement it. In reality, of course, the recession has been caused by the same global economic headwinds that had absolutely nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis, which was all Gordon Brown's fault.
 

4. ECONOMISTS. Since they nearly all said that Britain would be worse off if it voted Out, they now feel compelled to tell us that things are indeed worse. OK, maybe they are worse. But think about it: if we hadn’t voted Out, the economy might be even more calamitously buggered than it is now. This is logically unassailable. But do economists ever point it out? Do they Brussels. Yet sadly, global businesses, investors, consumers, and lots of other people who frankly lack gumption or vision, take these so-called experts seriously.
 

5. MARK CARNEY. Let’s get this straight: the Canadian governor of the Bank of England doesn’t want Britain to succeed, because then we’d be a direct competitor to his motherland. But with his honeyed voice and perpendicular jaw and incessant references to “data”, this man has gone a long way to convincing much of the public that he is some kind of disinterested authority on Britain’s economy. In reality, of course, he is out to destroy it, and seems to be making a pretty good fist of doing so.
 

6. EU BUREAUCRATS. You know those people we spent years attacking for being interfering, self-enriching, incompetent fools? Turns out they are now keen to make our lives as difficult as possible. The way to deal with this, of course, is to mount a national campaign of vilification. Another one. Before long they will be begging for mercy.
 

7. THERESA MAY. Look, we all wanted her to succeed. We knew she wasn’t one of us, but she wasn’t exactly one of them either, so we gave her a chance. Yet perhaps it is time to admit the possibility that the Prime Minister isn’t making this work because, when it comes down to it, she just doesn’t share our blood-pumping, sap-extruding belief in Britain unbound. In short, she’s just too damn reasonable. It’s time to embrace the unreasonable man. What’s Boris doing these days?
 

8. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (i). Not only can we not get the Remainers to present a united front to Brussels, it seems that we can’t even rely on our fellow Brexiteers. Most of us are on the same page: take back control of our borders, blue passports, compulsory blazers, onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands. But there are some among our own ranks who frankly don’t get it. These latte-sipping media types simper on endlessly about the importance of retaining access to the single market and seem awfully keen on Norway. Why don’t they just go and join Remain?
 

9. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (ii). Hey guys, the problem is this: Brexit got hijacked by the roast beef and two veg brigade, OK? For us it was always about unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit, shaking off the dead hand of Eurocrat regulation, being more human, that kind of thing. We had to go along with all that anti-immigration stuff but believe me we were biting our tongues and crossing our fingers. Some of our best friends are Turkish.
 

10. NONSENSE, IT IS WORKING.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.