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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.