Michael Gove searches the heavens for more enemies of promise. Image: Getty.
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Michael Gove: my part in his downfall

Seven habits of highly unpopular people.

Michael Gove does not hate children. Michael Gove does not hate teachers. Michael Gove does not hate state schools. That these three statements should be in any way controversial is a mark of quite how badly the former education secretary failed in his four years in the job.

For most of those years, I was the editor of a monthly business magazine called EducationInvestor. Whatever my own views, it would have been, shall we say, commercially convenient if the education secretary had been plotting to sell state schools to the highest bidder.

But – he wasn't. Not even secretly; not even behind closed doors. And the way that I know this is that the more fundamentalist end of our readership, who believed that having any motivation other than profit was tantamount to radical socialism, would complain constantly about Gove's timidity and lack of ambition.

What Michael Gove truly wanted, in fact, was the opposite of privatisation. The real goal of all his reforms – free schools, academisation, endless changes to the curriculum – was a state school system so good that the private sector would just wither and die. (Private school head teachers spent four years whinging constantly about quite how unappreciated they were.)

The young staffers who surrounded him all had affluent backgrounds and Oxbridge degrees, yes. But they were also all quite ludicrously passionate about state education, and about spreading their good fortune and privilege as far as it would go. I'm not exaggerating when I say that some of the most inspiring people I've ever met worked for Michael Gove. Just by being there, they made me feel terrible about my own self-serving life choices. In a world in which most ministers care less about their brief than they do about taking the next step on the ladder, Michael Gove really cared.

And yet there he is, the most hated man in Britain. Go figure.

As with everything else that ever happens in education policy, the left and the right have competing explanations for why this should be – or rather, they have competing interpretations of a single set of facts. To his enemies, Gove is the man who cut pay and conditions, cancelled school building schemes, added to teacher workloads, and snatched away local authority support. He’s made teachers’ daily lives worse: the profession hated Gove because, well, duh.

His supporters, however, give exactly the same reason for his unpopularity, with the vital difference that they think it's a good thing. Unpopularity is an inevitable side-effect of his crusade to take on the vested interests and enemies of promise that make up the education establishment. Unpopularity is a sign the medicine works.

And this, I think, is the real reason why nothing Gove touched ever quite seemed to go the plan: so ready was he for reform to become a fight to the death that he started to believe this nonsense himself. Angry teaching unions? Endless attacks in the papers? Being booed at conferences again? Got ‘em rattled. Carry on.

But there’s a downside to seeing unpopularity as a strength: you no longer have any mechanism to tell you when things are going wrong. Being hated for making hard choices looks exactly the same as being hated because you've screwed up. Gove and his acolytes long ago lost track of the ability to tell which is which. As a result, they were slow to notice their own mistakes, and deeply reluctant to change course. Wherever possible, they’d shoot the messenger before heeding the message, and Gove’s private office became a machine for turning critical friends into mortal enemies.

Despite the occasional narrowness of his ideas, Michael Gove was passionate about education. I’m sure he still is. But this passion, this determination to make things better whatever the cost, ended up blinding him to the possibility that, sometimes, he was making things worse.

The former education secretary has long been fond of referring to the education establishment (unions, bureaucrats, academics et al) as The Blob, after the 1958 film in which an alien amoeba crashes to earth and starts eating the townspeople. But perhaps a different B movie would be a more appropriate analogy for his career. By the end of The Thing, it's no longer possible to tell who is alien, and who is human. The longer you battle it, the harder it is to tell who your enemy really is – and the greater the chance that it's you.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.