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Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail: The man who hates liberal Britain

He's the most successful and most feared newspaperman of his generation. But after a bad year in which he was forced to defend his methods, how much longer can Dacre survive as editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail?

Paul Dacre by Ralph Steadman

Every weekday evening at around 9pm, in the Daily Mail’s headquarters in Kensington, west London, the slightly stooping, six-foot three-inch figure of Paul Dacre emerges into the main open-plan office where editors, sub-editors and designers are in the final stages of preparing pages for the next day’s paper. The atmosphere changes instantly; everyone becomes tense, as though waiting for a thunderstorm. Dacre begins with a low growl, like an angry tiger. His voice rises as several pages are denounced, along with those responsible. Imprecations reverberate across the office, sometimes punctuated by the strangely anomalous command to a senior colleague, “Don’t resist me, darling.” Pages must be replaced or redesigned, their order changed, headlines altered. New pictures are required with new captions. Dacre waves his long arms, hammers the air with his hands, shouts even louder and, if particularly agita­ted, scratches himself.

Nobody tries to argue. For all the fear and exasperation – “He never thinks of logistics and he has no idea of what’s an unreasonable request,” says one former sub-editor – there is also admiration. Dacre, Fleet Street’s best-paid editor, who earned almost £1.8m in 2012, has been in charge of the Mail since 1992 and, by general consent, is the most successful editor of his generation. The paper sells an average of 1.5 million copies on weekdays, 2.4 million on Saturdays. Only the Sun sells more but, on Saturdays, the Mail has just moved ahead. Its 4.3 million daily readers include more from the top three social classes (A, B and C1) than the Times, Guardian, Independent and Financial Times combined. Its long-standing middle-market rival, the Daily Express, slightly ahead when Dacre took over, now sells less than a third as many copies.

Under Dacre, the Mail has won Newspaper of the Year six times in the annual British Press Awards – twice as many prizes as any other paper. If anything, its authority and clout have grown in the past two years as Rupert Murdoch’s Sun has struggled with the fallout from the hacking scandal. Politicians no longer fear Murdoch as they once did. They still fear Dacre. The opposition from Murdoch’s papers to the government’s proposals that a royal charter should regulate the press is muted. Dacre’s Mail is loud and clear about the threat to “our free press”. Summoned twice before the Leveson inquiry – the second time because he had accused the actor Hugh Grant of lying in his evidence – he didn’t give an inch.

Everyone who has ever worked for Dacre, who has just passed his 65th birthday, praises his almost uncanny instinct for the issues and stories that will hold the attention of “Middle England”. No other editor so deftly balances the mix of subjects and moods that holds readers’ attention: serious and frivolous, celebrities and ordinary people, urban, suburban and rural, some stories provoking anger, others tears. No other editor chooses, with such unerring and lethal precision, the issues, often half forgotten, that will create panic and fear among politicians. “He’s the most consummate newspaperman I’ve ever met,” says Charles Burgess, a former features editor who also occupied high-level roles at the Guardian and Independent. “He balances the flow of each day’s paper in his head.”

“He articulates the dreams, fears and hopes of socially insecure members of the suburban middle class,” says Peter Oborne, the Mail’s former political columnist now at the Daily Telegraph. “It’s a daily performance of genius.”

But Murdoch’s decline leaves the Mail under more scrutiny than ever. Is Dacre at last running out of road? Rumours circulate in the national newspaper industry that members of the Rothermere family, owners of the Daily Mail, are increasingly nervous of the controversy that Dacre stirs up, notably this year with its attack on Ralph Miliband, father of the Labour leader, as “the man who hated Britain”. More than any other editor since Kelvin MacKenzie ruled at the Sun – and, among other outrages, alleged that drunkenness among Liverpool football fans led to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 – Dacre attracts visceral loathing. His enemies see the Mail, to quote the Huffington Post writer and NS columnist Mehdi Hasan (who was duly monstered in the Mail’s pages), as “immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting”.

The loathing is returned, with interest. In Dacre’s mind, the country is run, in effect, by affluent metropolitan liberals who dominate Whitehall, the leadership of the main political parties, the universities, the BBC and most public-sector professions. As he once said, “. . . no day is too busy or too short not to find time to tweak the noses of the liberal­ocracy”. The Mail, in his view, speaks for ordinary people, working hard and struggling with their bills, conventional in their views, ambitious for their children, loyal to their country, proud of owning their home, determined to stand on their own feet. These people, Dacre believes, are not given a fair hearing in the national media and the Mail alone fights for them. It is incomprehensible to him – a gross category error – that critics should be obsessed by the Mail’s power and influence when the BBC, funded by a compulsory poll tax, dominates the news market. It uses this position, he argues, to push a dogmatically liberal agenda, hidden behind supposed neutrality. Scarcely an issue of the Mail passes without a snipe and sometimes a full barrage in the news pages, leaders or signed opinion columns at BBC “bias”.

To its critics, however, the Mail is as biased as it’s possible to be, and none too fussy about the facts. In the files of the Press Complaints Commission, you will find records of 687 complaints against the Mail which led either to a PCC adjudication or to a resolution negotiated, at least partially, after the PCC’s intervention. The number far exceeds that for any other British newspaper: the files show 394 complaints against the Sun, 221 against the Daily Telegraph, 115 against the Guardian. The complaints will serve as a charge sheet against the Mail and its editor.

This year, the Mail reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax; that asylum-seekers had “targeted” Scotland; that disabled babies were being euthanised under the Liverpool Care Pathway; that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his home country; that 878,000 recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming “rather than face a fresh medical”; that a Portsmouth primary school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan; that wolves would soon return to Britain; that nearly half the electricity produced by windfarms was discarded. All these reports were false.

Mail executives argue that it gets more complaints than its rivals because it reaches more readers (particularly online, where the paper’s stories are repeated and others originate), prints more pages and tackles more serious and politically challenging issues. They point out that only six complaints were upheld after going through all the PCC’s stages and that the Sun and Telegraph, despite fewer complaints, had more upheld. But the PCC list, though it contains some of the Mail’s favourite targets such as asylum-seekers and “scroungers”, merely scratches the surface. Other complainants turned to the law. In the past ten years, the Mail has reported that the dean of RAF College Cranwell showed undue favouritism to Muslim students (false); the film producer Steve Bing hired a private investigator to destroy the reputation of his former lover Liz Hurley (false); the actress Sharon Stone left her four-year-old child alone in a car while she dined at a restaurant (false); the actor Rowan Atkinson needed five weeks’ treatment at a clinic for depression (false); a Tamil refugee, on hunger strike in Parliament Square, was secretly eating McDonald’s burgers (false); the actor Kate Winslet lied over her exercise regime (false); the singer Elton John ordered guests at his Aids charity ball to speak to him only if spoken to (false); Amama Mbabazi, the prime minister of Uganda, benefited personally from the theft of £10m in foreign aid (false). In all these cases, the Mail paid damages.

Then there are the subjects that the Mail and other right-wing papers will never drop. One is the EU, which, the Mail reported last year, proposed to ban books such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series that portray “traditional” families. Another is local authorities, forever plotting to expel Christmas from public life and replace it with the secular festival of Winterval. It does not matter how often these reports are denied and their flimsy provenance exposed; the Mail keeps on running them and its columnists cite them as though they were accepted wisdom.

The paper gets away with publishing libels and falsehoods and with invasions of privacy because the penalties are insignificant. Often the victims can’t afford to sue and, if they can, the Mail group, with £282m annual profits even in these straitened times, can live with the costs. The PCC, even when its rules allow it to admit a complaint, has no powers to impose fines or to stipulate the prominence of corrections.

Besides, many victims don’t pursue complaints because they fear the stress of going to war with a powerful newspaper. They included the late writer Siân Busby who, the paper wrote in 2008, had received “the all-clear from lung cancer” after “a gruelling year”. In fact, the diagnosis had come less than six months earlier and she hadn’t received the “all-clear”. More important, as her husband, the BBC journalist Robert Peston, explained in the James Cameron Memorial Lecture in November this year, she wanted to keep the news out of the public domain to protect her children.

“The Mail got away with it,” Peston said. “As it often does.” (The Mail, in a statement after the lecture, said the information had been obtained from Busby herself and that the reporter had identified himself as a Mail writer.) In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies compared the paper to a footballer who, to protect his goal, will deliberately bring down an opponent. “Brilliant and corrupt,” Davies wrote, “the Daily Mail is the professional foul of contemporary Fleet Street.”

Even a list of official complaints and court cases doesn’t quite capture why the Mail attracts such fear and loathing. It has a unique capacity for targeting individuals and twisting the knife day after day, without necessarily lapsing into inaccuracies that could lead either to libel writs or censure by the PCC. For instance, as publication of the Leveson report on press regulation approached, the Mail devoted 12 pages of one issue – and several more pages of subsequent issues – to an “exposure” of Sir David Bell, a name then almost entirely unknown even to well-informed members of the public. A Leveson assessor and former Financial Times chairman, Bell was allegedly at the centre of a “quasi-masonic” network of “elitist liberals”, bent on gagging the press and preventing freedom of expression. This network, based on the “leadership” training organisation Common Purpose, had spawned the Media Standards Trust, of which Bell was a co-founder, which in turn had spawned the lobby group Hacked Off, an important influence on Leveson. To the Mail, this was a perfect illustration of how well-connected liberals, through networks of apparently innocuous organisations, conspire to undermine national traditions and values.

The paper also targets groups, often the weak and vulnerable. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain complained to the PCC that the Mail ran 80 headlines between 2006 and 2008 linking Poles to problems in the NHS and schools, unemployment among Britons, drug smuggling, rape and so on. Most of the stories, as the federation acknowledged, were newsworthy and largely accurate. The objection was to the way they were presented and to the drip, drip effect of continually highlighting the Polish connection so that, as the federation’s spokesman put it, the average reader’s heart “skips a beat . . . with either indignation or alarm”. The PCC eventually brokered a settlement that led to publication of a letter from the federation.

Yet there is something magnificent about the Mail’s confidence and single-mindedness. Other papers, trimming to focus groups, muffle their message, but the Mail projects its world-view relentlessly, with supreme technical skill, from almost every page. It is a paper led by its opinions, not by news. It is not noted for big exclusives, nor even for rapid reaction. “We were often known as the day-late paper,” a former reporter recalls. “Dacre wouldn’t really be interested in a story until he’d seen it somewhere else. We would sometimes give our exclusives to other journalists. Dacre surveys all the other papers, selects the right lines for the next day and follows them.”

Although Dacre has little enthusiasm for new technology – he still doesn’t have a computer on his desk – his paper is perfectly primed for the age of instant 24-hour news, when the challenge is not so much to find and report news as to select, interpret and elaborate on it. Long before other papers recognised the merits of a features-led or views-led approach, the Mail under Dacre was doing it.

The Mail gives its readers a sense of belonging in an increasingly complex and unsettling world. Part of the trick is to make the world seem more threatening than it is: crime is rising, migrants flooding the country, benefit scroungers swindling the taxpayer, standards of education falling, wind turbines taking over the countryside. Almost anything you eat or drink could give you cancer. Above all, the family – “the greatest institution on God’s green earth”, Dacre told a writer for the New Yorker last year – is under continuous assault. The Mail assures readers they are not alone in their anxieties about this changing world. It is a paper to be read, not on trains or buses or in offices, but in the peace and quiet of your home, preferably with an old-fashioned coal fire blazing in the hearth.

“Readers like certainty,” says a former Mail reporter. “Newspapers that have a wavering grip on their ideology are the ones that struggle. The Mail is like Coke. It’s consistent, reliable. Dacre is one of the best brand managers in the business. He lives the brand.”


Dacre lives mostly in the shadows. His two appearances before the Leveson inquiry gave the wider public a rare glimpse; apart from Desert Island Discs in 2004, he never appears on television or speaks on radio. If the Mail needs to defend itself (and it deigns to do so only in the most desperate circumstances), the job is assigned to an underling. Requests for on-the-record interviews are invariably refused, as they were for this article. A rare exception was made for the British Journalism Review, whose then editor, Bill Hagerty (a former editor of the People), in­terviewed Dacre in the tenth year of his editorship. There was also that audience with the New Yorker last year. Public lectures are equally unusual for him, though he gave the Cudlipp Lecture (in memory of Hugh Cudlipp, a Daily Mirror editor who was an early hero of his) in 2007, and addressed the Society of Editors in 2008.

Even former staff members mostly prefer not to be quoted when talking about Dacre. If they agree to be quoted, they wish the quotations to be checked with them before publication. BBC Radio 4 used actors for several contributions to a recent profile. The journalists’ fear is not only that they may be cut off from future employment or freelance work – “The Mail pays far better than anybody else and you don’t want to jeopardise the £2,000 cheque that might drop through the letter box,” said one writer – but also that the Mail may hit back. These concerns are shared by many politicians, who are equally reluctant to be quoted.

Dacre has few social graces and even less small talk. His body language is awkward, his manner prickly. He seldom smiles and, according to one ex-columnist, “He doesn’t laugh, he just says, ‘That’s a funny remark.’” He treats women with old-fashioned courtliness, opening doors and helping them with coats, but is otherwise uncomfortable with them, perhaps because he was one of five brothers, went to an all-male school and has no daughters. He speaks gruffly, with a slight north London accent and an even fainter trace of his father’s native Yorkshire. He sometimes buries his rather florid face deep in his hands, as though exasperated with the world’s inability to share his simple, common-sense values. He became notorious for the ripeness of his language – so frequent was his use of the C-word, almost entirely directed at men, that his staff referred to “the vagina monologues” – but when Charles Burgess told him women didn’t like hearing it he was profusely apologetic. On Desert Island Discs, he confessed to shouting at staff. “Shouting creates energy,” he said. “Energy creates great headlines.”

He still shouts, but in recent years, as an insider reported, “He’s no longer the expletive volcano he once was; his barbs these days tend to concern the brainpower of his target and their supposed laziness.”

He owns three properties: a home with a mile-long drive in West Sussex (known to Mail staff as Dacre Towers), a more modest weekday residence in the central London district of Belgravia and a seven-bedroom house in Scotland with a 17,000-acre shooting estate. He is a member of the Garrick Club, and sometimes takes columnists to lunch at Mark’s Club in Mayfair, which one recipient of his hospitality described as “very decorous, the sort of place you could have gone to in the 19th century”. He sent both of his sons to Eton.

There are no stories of past or present indiscretions involving women, alcohol or drugs. Jon Holmes, a contemporary at Leeds University who is now a sports agent, recalls him as “a very cold fish; he never, ever, seemed to go out in a group for a drink or a meal or anything”. A former Mail reporter says: “We’d all be in the Harrow [a Fleet Street pub, heavily frequented by Mail journalists], and he would come in, buy a half-pint, take it to the opposite end of the bar, drink alone, and leave without speaking.”

He has an apparently stable and successful marriage to a woman he met at university, which has lasted 37 years. He frequently attends Church of England services, but is not a believer. He likes and sometimes goes out to rugby union matches, the opera and theatre – the last partly because his wife, Kathleen Dacre, is a professor of theatre studies and partly because he has a son who is a successful director and producer with surprisingly avant-garde leanings. Asked what television he watched, he once mentioned Midsomer Murders and nothing else.

He mostly eschews the trappings and opportunities of wealth and power. It is impossible to imagine him as a member of the Chipping Norton set or anything like it. He rarely dines or lunches with the powerful or fashionable, nor does he attend glitzy parties and social events. Frequently, he lunches in his office on meat and two veg. Sometimes he will lunch with politicians, but he has little respect or liking for them as a class and thinks it wise to keep his distance; Oborne recalls how, one evening, he ignored at least five increasingly urgent requests to take a call from a senior Tory minister. He declines nearly all invitations to sit on committees; his chairmanship of an official inquiry into the “30-year rule” (under which Whitehall records were kept secret for three decades) was unusual. “Editorship is not for him a route to something else,” says a former employee.


Dacre was born and spent much of his childhood in Enfield, an unremarkable middle-class suburb of north London whose inhabitants, he told the New Yorker, “were frugal, reticent, utterly self-reliant and immensely aspirational . . . suspicious of progressive values, vulgarity of any kind, self-indulgence, pretentiousness and people who know best”. Though his parents divorced late in life, his family was then (at least in his eyes) stable, happy and secure.

But the more important clue to him and his relationship with the Mail’s Middle England readership is the Sunday Express of the 1950s and 1960s under the editorship of John Gordon and then John Junor. “That paper,” Dacre told the Society of Editors, “was my journalistic primer . . . [It] was warm, aspirational, unashamedly traditional, dedicated to decency, middlebrow, beautifully written and subbed, accessible, and, above all, utterly relevant to the lives of its readers.” Talking to Hagerty, he described Junor’s Sunday Express as “one of the great papers of all time”.

After leaving school in Yorkshire at 16, his father, Peter Dacre, joined the Sunday Express at 21 and stayed there for the rest of his working life – mainly as a show-business writer but also, for short periods, as New York correspondent and foreign editor. Each Sunday that week’s paper was discussed and analysed over the Dacre family dinner table.

It was then in its heyday, selling five million copies a week, and it didn’t go into severe decline (it now sells under 440,000) until the 1980s. It was a formulaic paper, which placed the same types of stories and features in exactly the same spots week after week. As Roy Greenslade observes in Press Gang, his post-1944 history of national newspapers, it was “virtually devoid of genuine news”; what it presented as news stories were really quirky mini-features, starting, as Greenslade put it, “with lengthy scene-setting descriptions or homilies”. Its staple subjects were animals, motor cars and wartime heroes. Its biggest target was “filth”, in the theatre, the cinema, books, magazines and TV programmes.

It particularly deplored any assault on the delicate sensibilities of children. Dacre’s father criticised the BBC in 1965 for the unsuitable content of its Sunday teatime serials. Lorna Doone, he wrote, ended “gruesomely”, with a man drowning in a bog, and in the first episode of a spy serial the actors used such expressions as “damn”, “hell” and “silly bitch” at a time supposedly reserved for “family viewing”. “Have the men responsible for these programmes,” asked the elder Dacre, “forgotten that there can be no family without children? What kind of men are they? Do they have families of their own?” Another piece denounced the BBC’s Sunday evening play for “an overdose of twisted social conscience”.

The young Dacre was hooked by newspapers. He only ever wanted to be a journalist and he always had his eyes on editing: “I’m a good writer, but not a great writer,” he told Hagerty. As a child in New York, during his father’s posting there, he would wake to the clattering of the ticker-tape telex machine outside his bedroom. In school holidays, he worked as a messenger for Junor’s Sunday Express and then spent a gap year before university as a trainee on the Daily Express. At the fee-charging University College School in Hampstead, north London, he edited the school magazine, and once ran, he told the Society of Editors, “a ponderous, prolix and achingly dull” special issue about the evangelist Billy Graham. It “went down like a sodden hot cross bus”, teaching him the essential lesson, which the Mail remembers every day on every page, that the worst sin in journalism is to be boring.

To his disappointment, his application to Oxford University failed. He went instead to Leeds, where he read English and edited Union News, taking it sharply downmarket from, in his own description, “a product that looked like the then Times on Prozac” to one that ran “Leeds Lovelies” on page three. It won an award for student newspaper of the year. The paper supported a sit-in (led by the union president, Jack Straw, later a Labour cabinet minister), interviewed a student about “the delights of getting stoned”, wrote sympathetically about gay people, immigrants and homeless families, and called on students to help in “breaking down the barriers between the coloured and white communities of this town”. At the time, he subsequently claimed, he was left-wing, though Jon Holmes, who worked on Dacre’s Union News, says: “I never heard him express a political view except in favour of planned economies for third-world, though not first-world, countries.”

His left-wing period, as he calls it, continued until the Daily Express, which he joined as soon as he left Leeds, sent him to America in 1976. He stayed there for six years, latterly working for the Mail. “America,” Dacre told Hagerty, “taught me the power of the free market . . . to improve the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people.”

The Mail brought him back to London in the early 1980s and made him news editor. According to various accounts, he would “rampage through the newsroom with arms flailing like a windmill”, shouting “Go, paras, go” as he despatched reporters on stories. He climbed the hierarchy until in 1991 he became the editor of the London Evening Standard, then owned, like the Mail, by the Rothermeres’ Associated Newspapers. Circulation rose by 25 per cent in 16 months and Rupert Murdoch sounded him out about the Times editorship. To stop him leaving, the Mail editor David English resigned his chair, recommended that Dacre should replace him, and moved “upstairs” as editor-in-chief, another title that Dacre eventually inherited after English died in 1998.

Dacre’s editorship has been more successful than his mentor’s but most staff do not love him as they did English. English, though capable of great coldness to those who fell into disfavour and no less likely to fly off the handle, had charm and charisma. “He would be delighted when you rang,” a former foreign correspondent says, “and he’d want to gossip and know about everything that was going on. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour. But Paul doesn’t give good phone.”

He will invite writers into his office, push a glass of champagne into their hands and start saying their latest story is rubbish even as he does so. “And you hardly got time to finish the bloody drink,” a former reporter complains. A former executive says: “His track record for creating columnists is nil. He buys them up from elsewhere. He doesn’t home-grow talent because he doesn’t nurture and praise it. That’s where he’s unlike English.”


Dacre is a passionate and emotional man. Though the story that he sometimes sheds tears as he dictates leaders is probably apocryphal, nobody who has worked with him doubts that he is sincere in the views he and the Mail express. “He’s not an editor who wakes up in the morning and wonders what he should be thinking today,” says Simon Heffer, a Mail columnist. Another columnist, Amanda Platell, a former editor of the Sunday Mirror and press secretary to William Hague during his leadership of the Conservative Party, says: “When I was an editor, I had to second-guess my readership because they weren’t my natural constituency. Paul never has to do that.”

But while his views are mostly right-wing, he is not a reliable ally for the Conservative Party, or for anyone else. This aspect of his way of working is little understood. More than most editors, it can be said of him that he is in nobody’s pocket, not even his proprietor’s. He inherited from English a paper that was slavishly pro-Tory (“David was always in and out of No 10,” said a long-serving Mail editor), firmly pro-Europe and read mainly by people in London and the south-east. Dacre changed the politics of the paper and the demographics of its audience. Today, it is resolutely – some would say hysterically – Euro­sceptic and a far higher proportion of its readership is from Scotland and the English north and midlands. The Mail has ceased to take its line from Tory headquarters or to act as a mouthpiece for Conservative leaders. Indeed, every Tory leader since Margaret That­cher has fallen short of Dacre’s exacting standards. That applies particularly to John Major and David Cameron. According to a former columnist, Dacre regards the latter as “brash, shallow, unthinking and self-advancing” and he takes an equally jaundiced view of Boris Johnson. Twice he backed Kenneth Clarke for the party leadership, despite Clarke’s enthusiasm for the EU.

Clarke is a model for the politicians Dacre generally favours even if he disagrees with most of what they say: earthy, authentic, unpretentious, consistent in their values. Jack Straw and David Blunkett – both, like Clarke, from humble backgrounds – are other examples. For a time, Dacre took a relatively kindly view of Tony Blair, having been impressed by the future prime minister’s “tough on crime” approach as shadow home secretary. But he was always suspicious of Blair’s socially liberal views on marriage, gays and drugs and he told Hagerty that once Labour attained power, he saw the new government as “manipulative, dictatorial and slightly corrupt”. He wished, he added, that Blair had “done as much for the family as he’s done for gay rights”.

Gordon Brown, however, was smiled upon as no other politician had ever been. The two men developed a strange friendship, involving meals together and walks in the park, which one Mail columnist described to me as “the attraction of the two weirdest boys in the playground”. Brown, Dacre told Hagerty, was “touched by the mantle of greatness . . . he is a genuinely good man . . . a compassionate man . . . an original thinker . . . of enormous willpower and courage”. At a Savoy Hotel event to celebrate Dacre’s first ten years as editor, Brown was almost equally effusive, describing the Mail editor as showing “great personal warmth and kindness . . . as well as great journalistic skill”. “We tried to tell Dacre,” says a former Mail political reporter, “that Brown was not a very good chancellor and the economy would implode eventually. But frankly, Dacre has poor political judgement. They were united by a mutual hatred of Blair. Both are social conservatives; they’re both suspicious of foreigners; they both have a kind of Presbyterian morality. Dacre would say that Brown believes in work. It’s typical of him that he seizes on a single word as the key to his understanding of someone else.”

It is inconceivable that the Mail would ever back a party other than the Conservatives in a general election, but Dacre’s support can be cool, as it was in 1997 and 2010. Although he described himself to Hagerty as “a Thatcher­ite politically” and though self-made entrepreneurs are among the few people who can expect favourable coverage in the Mail, Dacre is, to most neoliberals, a tepid and inconsistent supporter of free enterprise. Nor is he a neocon. The Mail opposed overseas military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It has denounced Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and torture. It may be hard on immigrants and benefit scroungers, but it is often equally hard on the rich and famous, pursuing overpaid bosses of public-service utilities to their luxurious homes, exposing “depravity” among the well-heeled and high-born, and rarely treating TV and film celebrities with the deference that is the staple fare of other tabloids.

Many Mail campaigns have centred on liberal or environmental causes: lead in petrol, plastic bags, secret justice, the extradition to the United States of the hacker Gary McKinnon, and so on. For a time, the Mail furiously campaigned to stop Labour deporting failed (black) asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe, even though, almost simultaneously, it was berating ministers for allowing too many illegal immigrants to stay. Other campaigns, such as those against internet porn and super-casinos (both of which influenced government action), though reflecting the Mail’s conservative social agenda, highlighted issues that concern many on the left.

Dacre’s most celebrated campaign, which even some of his enemies regard as his finest hour, was to bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice. In 1997, over the five photographs of those he believed were responsible, he ran the headline “MURDERERS” and, beneath it, asserted: “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us”.

It was hugely courageous, but did it exonerate the Mail from accusations of racism? Critics point out that the paper rarely features black people except as criminals, though this is not exceptional for the nationals. The “soft” features on women, fashion, style and health are illustrated almost entirely by white faces and bodies.


Dacre’s somewhat belated support for the Lawrence campaign was prompted by a personal connection: Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, had worked as a decorator on Dacre’s London house of the time, in Islington. The Mail’s campaign, critics argue, was based on substituting one frame of prejudice for another. Young Stephen eschewed gangs and drugs, did his homework and wanted to go to university. His parents were married, aspirational and home-owning. In everything except skin colour, the Law­rence family represented Middle England, while his white alleged killers were low-class yobs who threatened the safety of all res­pectable folk.

In that, as in much else, Dacre’s Mail recalls 1950s Britain, which rather patronisingly welcomed migrants from Asia and the Caribbean as long as they behaved as though they and their ancestors were English. “If you’re in twinset and pearls, your colour is irrelevant,” says a former Mail journalist. “And Dacre’s attitude to gays changed when he realised it’s possible to be an extremely boring gay person.”

The Mail’s attitudes to drugs are also redolent of the 1950s. Writing about the disgraced Co-operative Bank chairman Paul Flowers, Stephen Glover – the Mail columnist whose views, according to insiders, track Dacre’s most closely – criticised commentators who “concentrated on his financial unsuitability”, placing “relatively little emphasis” on his “moral turpitude”.

Most of all, the Mail seems determined to uphold the 1950s ideal of womanhood: the stay-at-home mother who dedicates herself to homemaking and prepares a cooked dinner for her husband on his return home every night. That, the paper’s defenders say, is something of a caricature of the Mail’s position. It objects not so much to working mothers as to middle-class feminists who insist that women can “have it all”. English aimed at turning the Mail into “the women’s paper”, and succeeded: it became the only national newspaper where women accounted for more than half the readership. That remains true, and yet Dacre sometimes seems determined to drive them away. The paper subjects women’s bodies, clothes and deportment to relentless and detailed scrutiny, and often finds them wanting, particularly in the thigh and bottom department. It gives prominent coverage to research that warns of the negative effects of working mothers on children’s lives.

The Mail’s poster girl is Liz Jones, the columnist and fashion editor celebrated for her self-hatred and misery. “She has so much,” says another Mail journalist, “lots of money, expensive houses, the newest clothes. But she’s never had a child, she hasn’t kept hold of a man, and she’s unhappy. The message is: it’s what happens to you, girls, if you pursue worldly success. You can succeed but, oh boy, you will suffer for it.”

The Mail’s punishing hours, requiring news and features executives to stay at the office until late into the evening (not uncommon in national newspapers), and its largely unsympathetic attitude to part-time employment make it an unfriendly environment for working mothers. When Dacre took over at the Mail, he immediately appointed a female deputy, which, said another woman who then had a senior role in the group, “was quite a statement”. But the paper now has few women in its most senior positions, other than the editor of Femail (though sometimes even that post is occupied by a man), and few staff have young children.

Yet in some respects, the Mail, even though it does not recognise the National Union of Journalists, is a good employer. Unlike the Mirror, it is not under a company ruled by accountants who single-mindedly seek “efficiencies”. Unlike the Times and the Sun, it does not have a proprietor who touts his papers’ support to the highest bidder. Unlike the Guardian and Independent, it is not beset by financial problems. The pro­prietor, Viscount (Jonathan) Rothermere, whose great-grandfather Harold Harms­worth founded the paper with his brother Alfred in 1896, allows his editors wide freedom, as did his father, Vere Rothermere, who appointed Dacre. The Mail, alone among national newspapers, has had no significant rounds of editorial redundancies in recent years and its staffing levels (it employs about 400 journalists) are comparable to what they were a decade ago.

Dacre’s paper is his sole domain; MailOnline is run separately (though Dacre, as editor-in-chief, has oversight) and although the website carries all daily and Sunday paper stories, much of its content is self-generated and the editorial flavour is distinct. Dacre demands, and mostly gets, a generous budget, paying high salaries for established editorial staff and columnists and high fees for freelance contributors. Journalists are driven hard but, at senior levels in particular, they rarely leave, not least because Dacre is as loyal to them as they mostly are to him. Outright sackings are rare and nearly always accompanied by large payoffs.

Those who do leave often reach the top elsewhere. The current editors of both Telegraph papers – Tony Gallagher at the daily and Ian MacGregor at the Sunday – are former Mail executives.


Despite more than two decades at the helm, Dacre shows few signs of slowing down. After heart trouble some years ago – which caused an absence of several months from the office – his holidays, which he usually takes in the British Virgin Islands, have become slightly longer and more frequent. But he still routinely puts in 14-hour days.

Nevertheless, speculation about his future has grown among journalists on the Mail and other papers. At the end of November, Dacre sold his last remaining shares in the Daily Mail and General Trust, the Mail’s parent company, for £347,564; he disposed of the majority in 2012. His latest contract, signed on his 65th birthday, is for one year only. Geordie Greig, the 53-year-old editor of the Mail on Sunday, is widely regarded as the most likely successor, though Martin Clarke, the abrasive publisher of the phenomenally successful MailOnline, now the most visited newspaper website in the world, is also tipped and Jon Steafel, Dacre’s deputy, is favoured by most staff. The surprising announcement in November that Richard Kay, the paper’s diarist and a long-standing friend of Dacre’s, is to leave his position looks like another straw in the wind, particularly given that his almost certain replacement is Sebastian Shakespeare, previously the diary editor at the London Evening Standard, where Greig was editor before he moved to the Mail on Sunday.

Fleet Street rumour has it that Kay is being moved because he upset friends of Lady Rothermere, the proprietor’s wife, and that she is also behind the abrupt departure of the columnist Melanie Phillips, apparently on the grounds that her style – particularly during a June appearance on BBC1’s Question Time – is too shrill. Lady Rothermere, it is said, is desperately keen to oust Dacre in favour of Greig. Senior Mail sources pooh-pooh such tales, but they stop short of outright denials that Dacre is nearing the end of his days on the paper.

Newspapers, particularly those with strong traditions and consistent ownership (and the Mail can claim these more than any other Fleet Street paper), usually survive their editors. But can the Mail as we know and hate it survive Dacre’s departure? Over the two decades of his tenure, the paper has seemed to defy time and gravity. He has no truck with the fashionable and transitory and he acts, in effect, as a one-man focus group. “The question asked about a story at the Mail,” says a former editorial executive, “is not ‘Will it interest the readers?’ but ‘Will it interest the editor?’.”

His paper is suffused with a nostalgia for a lost Britain. The formula is unique and it will probably be impossible for a successor to reproduce it with anything like Dacre’s manic energy and conviction. Greig, an urbane and sociable Old Etonian and former Tatler editor who is descended from a long line of royal courtiers, would be a very different editor.

“If Dacre goes, it will be the end of the Daily Mail,” says a former columnist. “Dacre is a great man, in so far as journalism can produce great men. I know the left will be cheering when he goes but, believe me, the rich and famous will cheer more.”

Peter Wilby is a former editor of both the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove, the polite assassin

The Messianic restlessness of the justice secretary.

Michael Gove is the politest man in politics and one of the most abrasive, a charmer who cultivates enemies. He is pious, loyal and incurably irreverent. He is a gifted communicator who is widely misunderstood, an accomplished operator who repeatedly makes basic errors, and a right-wing ideologue with a fierce aversion to unearned privilege. He is a Conservative. He is a radical.

His party isn’t sure if he is an asset or a ­liability. One day in November 2013, when Gove was in the fourth year of his tenure as secretary of state for education, he received a visitor from Downing Street. Lynton Crosby, the Prime Minister’s chief political strategist, took Gove through a PowerPoint presentation, outlining his strategy for a Conservative victory in the upcoming general election, then 18 months away.

Crosby brought gratifying news. In most countries, he said, education was the preserve of parties of the left. But Crosby’s polling data indicated that in the UK, Gove had succeeded in putting this territory up for grabs. Crosby was inclined to seize it. It fitted the larger story that the Tories wanted to tell: opportunities for all, rewards for hard work, success in the global economic race. Gove and his advisers were delighted.

Eight months later, the Prime Minister met with Gove to tell him that he was relieving him of his duties at Education. It came as a painful shock. Gove wasn’t ready to leave, and his demotion to the post of chief whip – a job for which he had little appetite – involved the loss of a full cabinet seat. As if that weren’t enough, he was being sacked by one of his oldest and closest friends in politics, a man to whom he had given much, and of whom he had asked little. He did not, however, as Iain Duncan Smith had done more than once, threaten to resign. He was too loyal for that, as Cameron must have calculated.

The next day, Gove’s injury was spiked with insult. The Sunday papers, briefed by Cameron’s office on the reshuffle, led with Gove’s dismissal. All of them used the same word. It was said that the Prime Minister had concluded, on Crosby’s advice, that his education secretary was “toxic”, hated by teachers, who talk to parents, who vote in large numbers. Gove stayed loyal in public, even as his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, tweeted rather ominously about “a shabby day’s work which Cameron will live to regret”.

After the election was won, Gove’s status and pride were at least partly restored when he was awarded a new job: Secretary of State for Justice (and Lord Chancellor). One of the most intriguing questions of the new government is what he will decide to do with it. That is not a question you ask of every minister – you can’t imagine asking it of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, in any job, ever. But Gove is an inveterate reformer, driven by a desire to change the world, rather than simply manage it: as a friend and former colleague at the Department for Education told me, with feeling, “The thing about Michael is that he wants to do things – to change things because he believes in them.” As a personality, he stands out in the rather bland world of Westminster, a parakeet among pigeons. Someone who has worked closely with all the key players in this government calls him “the most interesting man in politics”.

Gove has kept a low profile, for him, since his appointment to Justice (he declined to be interviewed for this article). But the early signs are that he wants to do things again. He has been tasked with the government’s law reforms, and with extracting Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. Both moves will be resisted by lawyers. If he takes on the legal establishment as he took on the education establishment, he may have the biggest fight of his political career. Lawyers are closer than teachers to the levers of political power, and advocates are usually pretty good at advocating. The Gove brand might become retoxified by combat. But if he doesn’t take that risk, will he still be able to do big things?

This leads us to a fundamental question about reform. In April, three weeks before the general election, I attended a lunch organised by the New Statesman at which the principal guest was Tristram Hunt, then the shadow education secretary. In those days, believe it or not, it seemed likely that we were meeting the next education secretary. Hunt spoke to the assembled guests and then took questions.

When he had finished, I turned to the guest next to me, a former civil servant at the DfE who now worked for an exam board. I wondered aloud how Hunt would get on in government. “Oh, he’ll be utterly useless,” my neighbour replied. He explained that the world of education consists of a series of staunchly opposed and deeply entrenched interests. Hunt, he said, seemed to assume that everyone would be eager to work with him to improve schools. But it wasn’t like that.

If you are a politician who wants to make big changes to the way a public service runs, do you need to pick sides, and choose enemies, or can you do it through consensus and conciliation? Perhaps the answer depends on character as much as political ­philosophy. Radicalism in government isn’t so much a creed, as a temperament, one that thrills in putting principle over compromise, and is drawn irresistibly to the theatre of battle.

Another of Gove’s friends told me, “Michael is an idealist – a dangerous character.”


Among those on the left, at least, Michael Gove was the coalition government’s chief hate figure, beating David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, or George Osborne. This is, when you think about it, a little odd. For one thing, Gove wasn’t the one shrinking the state or cutting benefits; indeed, he successfully defended Education from the worst of the cuts. For another, his Toryism comes with a vivid streak of red (though perhaps that explains it). Among those who have known or engaged with Gove, it is said, even by adversaries, that he is animated by concern for the poor. Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the teachers’ union, who is an otherwise unsparing critic, told me: “He wants a more equal society. He truly believes in education as a vehicle for social justice.”

Gove’s background is not that of a typical Tory, and is certainly different from that of his friends Osborne and Cameron. He was born in Edinburgh in 1967, and his biological mother gave him away when he was still an infant. He was adopted at four months by a couple from Aberdeen who proved to be loving parents. (His mother used to tell him, “You didn’t grow under my heart, you grew in it.”) His father, Ernest, ran a small business, inherited from his own father, processing the cod and whiting that came in from the trawlers every morning. Some of Gove’s earliest memories are of watching his father skin, gut and smoke fish (he hated the smell). Gove’s mother, Christine, was a lab assistant at Aberdeen University. Together with his younger sister, Angela, also
adopted, he was raised in a three-bedroom semi. The family attended Church of Scotland services and he remains an avid believer: his moral world-view, and his rhetoric, are strongly coloured by Christian scripture (his advisers wincingly insist that his decision, as education secretary, to send a signed Bible to every school was a personal one).

His parents were eager that their bright young son should move up in life, and when, aged 11, he passed the entrance exam for the most prestigious private school in Aberdeen, Robert Gordon’s College, they stretched the pennies to pay the fees. Their son has never stopped thanking them for it. Gove adored Robert Gordon’s. In a sense, he was born there. The vividly drawn persona we are familiar with today emerged, fully formed, at school, in an act of audacious self-invention. The young Gove sought not merely to fit in with his socially superior peers, but to stand out from them. He rode an old-fashioned bicycle to school, wore suits, recited poetry and starred in debates.

Unusually confident, he excelled at most things, except sport. He was known for asking challenging questions of his teachers in a way that threatened to overturn the classroom hierarchy. Speaking to the Times in 2014, a former teacher recalled, “At the start of every lesson a hand would go up and it would be Michael. The thought would go through my mind, ‘What is he going to ask me now and will I know the answer?’” He was admired by classmates for his cheeky rejoinders to teachers, for which he occasionally received beatings with a leather belt, and was generally thought of as a good egg. A former classmate told the Guardian, “I had glasses and red hair, and I vividly remember being bullied in the changing room, and Michael tried to stop it.”

The Gove family fell on hard times after Ernest’s business was affected by diminishing fish stocks and new EU regulations. Christine, who had left her job to look after the children, returned to work as a classroom assistant at Aberdeen School for the Deaf, where Angela, severely deaf, was a pupil. The fees for Robert Gordon’s were no longer affordable but the school awarded Gove a scholarship. He must have felt ­heroic: his brilliance had saved the family from humiliation.

Precocious children often grow into adults with something of the child about them, and there is something eternally schoolboyish about Gove. The reflected admiration of his parents, teachers and classmates still radiates from his smooth-cheeked face. There remains also something of the outsider, who can’t resist sly jabs at insiders. Soon after becoming education secretary, he railed against a system in which “rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children”. He was probably surrounded by a few of the former in Robert Gordon’s, not to mention the Tory party.

He studied English at Oxford, where he was an active member of the Conservative Association, and was elected president of the Oxford Union. After graduation, he failed an interview with the Conservative Research Department because he was – at least as he tells it – “insufficiently political” and “insufficiently Conservative”. He returned to Scotland, landing his first job in journalism at the Aberdeen Press and Journal. On moving to London, he worked in television, including a stint as a presenter, before joining the Times, where he met ­Sarah Vine, with whom he has two young children: William, ten, and Beatrice, 12.

Gove started as a reporter, before becoming a leader writer and columnist. In print, the well-mannered, self-ironising young fellow was transformed into a Churchillian warrior. A self-proclaimed neoconservative, he was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war and an implacable foe of Islamic terrorism, about which he wrote a book, Celsius 7/7 (this was his second book; the first was Michael Portillo: the Future of the Right). His columns were stylish, if shallow, displaying a debater’s grasp of foreign policy, in which abstract nouns such as freedom, appeasement and resolve carried all before them.

In 2002, Gove co-founded the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, which became a hub for ambitious and metropolitan young Tories. He made friends with Cameron, Osborne and Steve Hilton (Cameron’s former director of strategy), who were impressed by his fluent articulation of political ideas. Cameron, a rising star of the Tory benches, persuaded his friend to leave journalism for politics, and in the May 2005 general election he was elected MP for Surrey Heath.

In 2007, when Cameron had been leader of the party for two years, his shadow education secretary David Willetts was bold enough to point out that grammar schools are not engines of social mobility. The Tory grass roots, never entirely comfortable with their leader’s modernisation project, revolted. Cameron sacked Willetts and asked Gove to fill the vacancy. He did so with alacrity. It wasn’t just the promotion: here was a brief into which he could pour himself.

Gove’s friends always refer you to his childhood to explain his motivation in politics. It is said, not least by himself, that he carries with him an acute awareness of his own good fortune. What if he hadn’t escaped the (presumed) poverty of his birth mother? What if his adoptive parents hadn’t cared so much about education? What if he hadn’t got a scholarship? He wants others, less lucky than he was, to have the same life chances, and believes education is a bridge out of poverty, into the freedoms enjoyed by elites. (In a speech at Brighton College in 2012, Gove bemoaned the extent of private-school dominance. “In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”) Government, he argues, bears a responsibility to help the disadvantaged become the “authors of their own life story”. As right-wing ideologies go, it is hardly Ayn Rand.

The team Gove recruited to help in his new job included Dominic Cummings, a former aide to Iain Duncan Smith; Henry de Zoete, who had worked at the Tory think tank Reform; and Sam Freedman, an education wonk from Policy Exchange. The advisers made for quite a similar group. They were all men in their thirties and forties. None had taught, or had children of school age. They had all attended Oxford or Cambridge. They were voracious readers, particularly of history, and confident talkers who relished intellectual debate. None was a fan of David Cameron, whom they regarded as irredeemably superficial. They had little time for party politics, and didn’t cherish political ambitions (nearly all of them left politics after resigning from Gove’s team). They saw themselves as sojourners in government, on special assignment to ameliorate the lot of the nation’s children, and they were united in admiration for a man they ­regarded as the only politician in Britain with the intellect, bravery and moral purpose to lead the mission.


Gove inspires loyalty among those who have worked for or with him, even those who weren’t close to him. Those I spoke to for this piece declined, for the most part, to speak on the record, not so much out of fear as concern that they might upset him.

In private, it is said, Gove is funny, acerbic, mischievous. A senior adviser to Ed Miliband during the last parliament told me that if he bumped into Gove in the foyer of Portcullis House, a sotto voce conversation would ensue, spiced with some less-than-reverential comment about one of Gove’s colleagues, or even his boss. Gove can converse knowledgeably and passionately on most topics. He devours books, mainly history (particularly about Britain and America in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the really big things got done) and political biography. He loves Wagner, and has made the pilgrimage to the annual festival in Bayreuth, Bavaria. His son is a football fan and so, having had limited interest in the sport, Gove is now an expert on it. His mental bandwidth is high: whether it’s culture or briefing documents, his ability to acquire and absorb information is impressive.

Everyone mentions his politeness. He is elaborately courteous, not just with friends and potential allies but with opponents,
junior civil servants and children. If he wants to charm you, he looks you in the eye and listens intently. His politeness is rigorously enforced, as if developed to constrain some anarchic inner force. It can also be used as a weapon. “Michael is aggressively polite,” a former colleague of his told me. “He uses his politeness to make people feel uncomfortable; to put them out of their comfort zone.” The politeness has a distancing effect even on those who know and like him. “I worked with him closely for years,” said the former colleague, “and I barely knew him.” A friend told me, “There is a mystery at the heart of Michael.” Another said that he imagines Gove’s formality extends even to his wife, although her columns sometimes read like deliberate attempts to deformalise her husband: she has discussed his inept driving, his aromatic orange corduroys, and even the couple’s conjugal relations (“just another chore . . . to tick off your endless to-do list”).

The psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips talks about something that artists and children have in common: a need to hide, and at the same time be seen. You often get the sense, observing Gove, that he is trying to conceal something and also to let you know about it. After finishing an elegant non-answer to a difficult question, he will smirk, momentarily, as if to signal collusion in an ironic joke. He presents the decorous façade, and he wants you to know there is something even more interesting behind it.

Whatever else there is, there is decency. In 2013, Mary Bousted, the head of the ATL teachers’ union, was attacking Gove in the media. So she was surprised, when she got married that year, to receive a card and ­present from the minister. “Personally, he’s very kind,” she said. In 2014 the wife of his former policy adviser Freedman gave birth to a stillborn child. Freedman hadn’t been in regular contact with his old boss since leaving government. Gove wrote a handwritten letter of condolence to him and his wife. Freedman was moved. “It was a thoughtful letter: not dashed off, but something he had clearly spent time on.”


In May 2010, at the age of 42, Gove ­became secretary of state for children, families and schools. He came to office unusually well prepared. “Gove identified the right challenges,” says Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, the head teachers’ union. “He had mastered his brief to a degree rarely seen.” Bousted, as leader of the ATL, was taken to dinner by Gove shortly after he took office. She was charmed, and found him “knowledgeable, interested and committed”. Mark Lehain, headmaster of Bedford Free School, who belongs to the small but vocal group of teachers who have backed Gove in public, told me: “Those guys had a plan. They realised that you can’t reform any one part of the system in isolation. So they had thought about everything: school structures, academic standards, teacher training . . .”

They also had the contours of a powerful narrative, with a victim, an enemy and a solution. Children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, were being failed by a complacent and self-interested education establishment. “We identified three groups that were holding back the [teaching] profession,” a former adviser to Gove said: local authorities, the unions, and the universities doing teacher training. “We went after all three.” Gove believed that local authorities were too inept and lazy to turn around failing schools, that the unions were more interested in the welfare of teachers than in children, and that head teachers were better qualified to train their staff than woolly-headed Marxist sociologists.

The answer was to liberate schools from local authority control. Academies – self-governing schools, funded directly from central government and sponsored by businesses, church groups, charities or private schools – were introduced in a cautious manner by Tony Blair’s government, as a last resort, to improve failing schools in poor areas that were managed incompetently by their local authority. Gove proposed to accelerate this programme, and to make academy status the default for new schools, breaking the link with disadvantaged communities. He would also introduce “free schools”, allowing groups of teachers or parents to set up on their own if they were unhappy with the local schools available to them.

Members of Gove’s circle have differing recollections of how preconceived was his offensive on the education establishment. Certainly, in his opposition days, Gove made efforts to charm and persuade most of the key players in education policy, including Labour Party reformers and amenable trade unionists. But once he was in office, both sides dug in, and battle commenced.

In his Whitehall office, Gove hung pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X. Like any good radical, he believed in the necessity of advancing at speed. “Michael knew that politics is fickle and that he might soon be out of a job,” a friend who was with him in those early days told me. “We needed to get as much done as quickly as possible.” Seventy-seven days after the 2010 general election, he had pushed a hastily drafted bill into law, containing a blizzard of provisions, at the centre of which were new powers for the secretary of state to remove schools from local authority control. The civil service
had advised him that it would take three to five years to open the first free schools. The department opened 20 by September 2011, and a hundred more the following year.

Gove’s team felt under siege, from within and without. They inherited a group of ­officials sceptical about their pedal-to-the-metal policymaking. A senior civil servant told the Times, “Michael Gove is one of those conviction politicians who has got very strong prior beliefs about what works, and he isn’t that fussed about evidence.” Their plans were frequently leaked to the press or the opposition; documents were stolen from photocopiers. Every day brought new
crises that required urgent attention.

In the summer of 2010 came what one former adviser calls “a grade A catastrophe”. Labour had started a £55bn programme of investment in new school buildings, known as Building Schools for the Future, that Gove regarded as a fiscal extravagance. He peremptorily cancelled it, without attention to the details of which schools should or shouldn’t get the buildings they had been promised. A panicked department couldn’t get the list of affected schools right. Again and again it published the wrong list, as teachers howled and the press shrieked. Gove made a humiliating apology on the floor of the House. Tom Watson called him a “miserable little pipsqueak”. He was on the brink of resigning – or getting fired.


That he stuck it out was due in part to the intervention of his closest adviser, Dominic Cummings. It is impossible to understand Gove’s time at Education, or indeed Gove, without considering his relationship with the man described by Nick Clegg as “loopy” and by others as brilliant or bullying, or both. Cummings got to know Gove while he was running a campaign against the euro; Gove was then at the Times. Later, when Iain Duncan Smith became leader of the Conservatives, he appointed Cummings as his director of strategy, though that didn’t last long: he was too jagged-edged for Tory MPs to cope with, and Duncan Smith was too cautious for Cummings, who has a distaste for the fudges of Westminster politics. Cummings spent the next two and a half years in a bunker under his father’s farm in Durham, reading books on astrophysics and military history and constructing an elaborate theory of the shortcomings of the British state, before returning to the fray on behalf of his friend.

Cummings, like Gove, has a love of argument, as well as a suspicion, bordering on contempt, for those who compromise, muddle through and fail to pick sides. But he doesn’t have Gove’s politesse. He cares little – or even notices – what people think of him. In a departmental meeting, Gove might make his dissatisfaction clear by his tone, but it would be Cummings who told the civil servants they were a shambles, or who shut meetings down abruptly, and Cummings who sent around hectoring emails, with liberal use of capital letters, to staff in the department.

When Gove’s critics bemoan his pugilistic tendency, they usually identify Cummings as a bad influence, a devil in his ear. But they are brothers in arms, and Gove, if anything, is the more impulsive provocateur. His instinct for combat is tempered, however, by his desire to please and entertain. Privately, Gove has referred to Cummings as his “daemon” – in Philip Pullman’s terms, an expression of your personality that in the real world must be hidden.

Gove valued Cummings’s street-fighting skills and his fearlessness in a crisis. When the Building Schools for the Future storm blew in, Cummings was in exile, after being banned from joining Gove in government by Andy Coulson, then David Cameron’s communications director, who knew Cummings would never be subject to message discipline. Cummings visited Great Smith Street and told Gove to stop apologising: it only made him look weak. Gove started to return fire. Eventually, the officials got the right list out. The media moved on. Sam Freedman told me that this was the moment when the political steel entered Gove’s soul. “He realised that he was always going to be under attack,” his former policy adviser said,
“so he had to be on the attack himself.”

From then on, punches were met with harder counterpunches. Gove declared it his mission to vanquish “the enemies of promise” (these enemies included “the blob”, his term for education academics, but which many took to mean teachers). An unnamed adviser told the Financial Times, “There’s institutional power that needs to be destroyed. A lot of our job is walking along the cliff edge and stamping their fingers off.” Melodramatic combat metaphors proliferated. Gove described the early free schools as “the first on the beach at D-Day”. He told the Times, through an adviser, that he was “shellshocked” in the first months of government but that now, “every time anyone shoots at me and misses it is exhilarating knowing I am still alive”. Mary Bousted told me that she came to think of the Gove she’d met over dinner as “an elaborate façade”.

Revolutions are messy, and mistakes are inevitable: the radical accepts this as the price of speed. Cummings is fond of the Facebook motto “Move fast and break things”. Gove’s version, coined in response to questioning from a select committee, is “Coherence comes at the end of the process”. But Gove’s team made many of their big moves without thinking them through. Their targets had a random quality: why 500 free schools? They threw cash at schools that agreed to become academies, without extracting any promises from them in return, with the result that some schools took the money without changing much at all except their name. They neglected to design a proper system for deciding who should be allowed to sponsor academies, or for assessing whether the trusts were doing a good job, leading to an ongoing series of snarl-ups. Eventually they had to ask a Tory peer, the hedge-fund manager and venture capitalist John Nash, to invent a sponsor evaluation policy. Its workings remain mysterious, even to those involved in academies.

Gove’s personal interventions in curriculum reform – his crusade to put British history first, for instance – generated plenty of news but didn’t seem to be based on much beyond the minister’s own prejudices, and quickly got bogged down. The curriculum his team left behind wasn’t, in the end, all that different from the one they inherited. An attempt to replace GCSEs with O-levels blew up on the launchpad. Announcing his climbdown, the minister described the reform as “a bridge too far”.

Despite all this, Gove’s reputation rose within the Tory party and among Tory supporters. His attacks on left-wingers, bureaucrats and unions provided endless fodder for right-wing journalists, who hailed him as the star of Cameron’s government, and even as a potential successor. The story of head teachers and children being freed from the grip of left-wing oppressors was irresistible, and made all the mishaps seem worthwhile. Yet even as it propelled Gove forward, it was undermining his reforms – and him.


If you want to change the education system, you need teachers, at least a large proportion of them, on your side. “When the classroom door is shut,” Russell Hobby told me, “teachers will go back to doing what they’ve always done – unless you bring them with you.” Conor Ryan, formerly an adviser to one of Gove’s most consequential predecessors, David Blunkett, told me that although Blunkett wasn’t afraid of upsetting the teaching unions, he always made sure to have at least one ally among them, too. Education secretaries are rarely popular with teachers, but none has been quite as unpopular as Gove.

Why did teachers so revile him? Perhaps it was the cognitive dissonance of a Conservative education secretary implementing policies with a progressive bent, such as the Pupil Premium (extra funding for schools with a disadvantaged intake). Mark Lehain, the head of Bedford Free School, said, “For years, teachers have been asking for more control over how they teach, and for funding according to the needs of kids. Along comes Gove – a Tory – and he does all that. And there’s uproar.”

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher. She was invited to Great Smith Street more than once to give Gove’s advisers a classroom-level perspective. She liked them, and felt listened to, even when she was being directly critical. But the divide between plan and reality was too great. “The world you inhabit if you’re in Whitehall, with the neat policy solutions and the sense of moral purpose, is just so different to being in a classroom of thirty children chucking stuff at you, or dealing with a kid whose parents are pimping them out at the weekend,” McInerney said.

When I asked her if the response of teachers to Gove was disproportionate, she drew a deep breath. “My school was in buildings that had been rendered inadequate for ten years. Two generations of children had been through the doors of a condemned building. We were six weeks from having a new one. Then he cancelled it. Imagine being the head teacher. You’ve spent three years on a plan for the new building, consulting with parents, hoping that in 18 months or so it might be a place where you don’t feel ill every time you walk in. And someone comes along and says, ‘Sorry, no.’ Ten years!”

She paused, but continued, in a voice tightening with remembered fury. “Then they whack you over the head for teaching media studies instead of computing, and tell you that if you fail on this, all your senior leaders will be sacked and replaced by an academy trust. You don’t need to know who this trust is, or why it’s going to be running your school – that will be decided by a hedge-
fund manager. Oh, and we’re changing the curriculum, so every lesson you’ve ever planned in the last five years is obsolete, and you can’t use any of it again. Imagine the panic, in any workplace, if all of those things hit you! And every week he’s ­announcing this stuff in the Sunday fucking Times, which is owned by his previous boss.”

This degree of anger towards Gove baffles his advisers. One of them told me, “He gave more speeches talking more positively about teachers than any secretary of state has ever done.” But, to teachers, the praise felt fake. Politeness comes at a cost to authenticity: it is, by definition, a formal mode of expression, used to conceal what we really feel, and one problem with Gove’s praise for teachers is that it felt like mere politeness. The other is that it was double-edged. Debra Kidd, a teacher and blogger who became one of his most high-profile critics, told me: “In every speech where he praised teachers, he alienated teachers.” When Gove talked about “the best generation of teachers ever”, it felt as if he were trying to divide teachers into the ones who “got it” and those who didn’t – into goodies and baddies. Teachers came to feel that they were being called “enemies of promise”.

During an onstage question-and-answer session at the Institute of Education in London in 2012, Gove declared it was time to believe in the “educability” of every child. A furious member of the audience interrupted, telling him that all teachers have high ambitions for their pupils. Most politicians would have reacted with praise and reassurance. Gove felt it opportune to tell a roomful of teachers that some of them plainly were failing children, because there are failing schools. It was logically correct, and it was stupid.


The colleague of Gove’s who called him the most interesting man in politics added a caveat: “Apart from, maybe, George Osborne.” Osborne is interesting in a different way, however. He is a talented tactician, skilled at accumulating power, but he hasn’t yet conveyed a sense of purpose, other than the advancement of his and his party’s interests. Gove is the opposite. He is a storyteller who has honed the events of his own life into the kind of personal story beloved of US presidential candidates. Yet he isn’t interested in political process (he was a terrible chief whip) and is more likely to fixate on obstacles to change, such as EU regulations or Whitehall inertia. Osborne takes satisfaction in working the machine; Gove would rather take a hammer to it. Osborne likes to repeat Lyndon B Johnson’s maxim about getting votes: the first rule of politics is to be able to count. Gove, as even his friends admit, is not good with numbers.

One of the interesting things about Gove is that he is interesting in public as well as in private. Most politicians who rise to the level of cabinet minister have either learned the art of being dull in public or were born with a gift for it. But in speeches and interviews, Gove is compelled to sparkle. He cannot flip an internal switch and become an automaton. This makes him likeable as a person, especially to journalists. It can be useful for a politician, too – Gove knew how to make headlines without having new policies. Yet it makes him an unstable figure, prone to combust, and it puts a natural limit on his ambition. He has always denied, convincingly, any desire to be prime minister.

If you are Lynton Crosby and an election is hoving into view, you do not look kindly on spontaneity of expression. We may never know at which point Crosby began to reconsider his view of the education minister. The meeting at Great Smith Street in November 2013 took place just at the point at which Gove’s media-buoyed self-confidence was highest. He was showing signs of boredom with his day job. The major reforms had passed into law, and the mechanics of consolidation held little interest for him. By 2014 he was casting around for attention. In an article for the Daily Mail, he attacked what he took to be the prevailing view of the First World War. Spraying bullets wildly, he hit historians, the BBC (for Blackadder) and even his own government, criticising the official opinion that Germany should not be blamed for the war.

In March that year, he made further headlines by complaining about the number of Old Etonians in cabinet, which he described to a Financial Times journalist as “preposterous”. This aligned so closely to one of Labour’s main lines of attack that it can only have infuriated No 10, including Crosby.

Three months later, at dinner with former colleagues from the Times, Gove discussed an alleged plot in Birmingham schools to indoctrinate children into Islamist ideology. Pushing the boundaries of his ministerial remit, he had hired an anti-terrorism expert to write a report on the problem. Now, forgetting that his comments might be legitimately reported, and no doubt eager to say something interesting to his old peers, Gove blamed the Home Office for failing to “drain the swamp” of extremism. On seeing the Times front page the next day, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was furious. In the subsequent fallout, May was forced to sack her closest adviser, but it was Gove who was made to apologise by a furious Prime Minister.

In July, Gove gave an interview to Allegra Stratton on BBC TV’s Newsnight. She asked him about a poll which had found that less than a fifth of teachers supported him. Gove started to stumble over his words. Determined to regain his customary verbal command, he accidentally made explicit what he had previously only implied. “What I can tell you is that outstanding teachers, and outstanding head teachers, are, I find, overwhelmingly in favour of what we’re doing.” Stratton: “So it’s the bad ones that don’t get it?” Gove: “Yes.”

Five days later he was fired.


We often tell ourselves that we want politicians to have ideals; to stand for things; to keep promises; to speak their minds rather than parrot the party line; to stay true to who they are; to care about more than their own career. Gove does all this. He really is, in the disdainful phrase of that senior civil servant who spoke to the Times, “one of those conviction politicians”. That he is hated by some and unloved by many tells us something about the difference between what we wish for, and what, in practice, we want.

Mark Lehain of Bedford Free School told me that although Gove is unpopular with the teaching profession his reforms are not. “Not many teachers would want to give up on greater autonomy, or reverse the changes to funding, or to exams.” Even Gove’s critics usually concede that he made some lastingly important reforms. He restored integrity to a curriculum and assessment system that had lost its focus on academic standards. He made it easier for central government to remove failing schools from the grip of incompetent local authorities.

But he never solved, or even made a serious attempt to solve, the biggest problem of all: how take the formula of the best schools and replicate it at scale. There are a few outstanding academy chains, such as Ark or the Harris Federation (both of which pre-date his reign), whose schools turn in excellent results on behalf of children from disadvantaged families: children who would otherwise have been failed by the system. (These schools remain perversely undercelebrated by the left – the Guardian and New Statesman writer Suzanne Moore described academies as “madrasas for the middle classes” – and in recent years Gove’s radicalism has been mirrored by Labour’s conservatism; under Jeremy Corbyn the party is now committed to abolishing academy status.)

It has not been easy to find enough trusts capable of running academies well, however, or sufficient numbers of good head teachers. Any solution probably requires combining the best local authorities with the best academy chains. Some local authorities are bad at running schools; some do it exceptionally well. Gove’s insistence on cutting them out was as myopic as the left-wing insistence that only local government bureaucracies should be allowed to manage schools.

In time, his reforms may be shown to be less significant than they once seemed. There is no evidence that academies are, on average, better than schools under local authority control. He did not break the power of the unions, because the unions did not have much power to begin with. The school system has been fractured, but it hasn’t reconstituted itself into a new form. Its size and complexity – 500,000 teachers in 20,000 schools – make it resistant to big changes from above. Maybe it can only ever be nudged along, and then only by someone with a dogged attention to detail.

Gove might have stayed in his job for longer, and got more done, had he not been so determined to stage a drama of radicalism, with himself in the lead. “He would ­announce policies in a Sunday newspaper, in a way that was, inevitably, free of nuance. So they were bound to be rejected by teachers on Monday morning,” says Russell Hobby of the head teachers’ union. “That made me wonder what his priority was: to make the reforms work, or to win arguments?” A former MP who worked with Gove on education told me: “Michael enjoys battle. Not just winning, but the process – being noticed for it.”

His gift for rhetoric created a legacy itself, however. As Crosby noted, Gove changed the political weather around education. The Conservative Party does not clamour quite as it did for the return of grammar schools. It is much more likely than it was to take pride in the state school system: witness the jubilant coverage in the Tory press of this year’s GCSE results, full of favourable comparisons to private schools. David Cameron is the first serving Conservative prime minister to have a child at a state secondary school (his daughter Nancy attends the Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster, as does Gove’s daughter). It is also harder now, wherever you stand on the political spectrum, to write off certain schools or school districts as faced with an impossible task of educating the poor. Nobody wants to be accused of being an enemy of promise. The education blogger Debra Kidd, a vociferous critic of Gove, told me that she recently attended a conference at which the new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was speaking. “She was so bland that I found myself thinking, ‘I miss Michael Gove.’ He was always interesting.”


Gove has a lot on his hands at ­Justice – the Human Rights Act, criminal justice reform, prisons – and he has once again convinced himself that time is short (one of his friends indicated that he may have to resign over the EU referendum if Cameron insists on collective responsibility). He will not spend much time or political capital on efforts to scrap the Human Rights Act. Cameron has ruled out a withdrawal from the European Convention, which makes the complicated and troublesome business of replacing one bill of rights with another seem particularly pointless.

His most urgent task is to steady a criminal justice system on the brink of crisis, a problem he inherited from his immediate predecessor, the flamboyantly incompetent Chris Grayling. Funding for legal aid has been slashed to a level that gravely endangers the quality of justice available to the poor. Criminal lawyers are overstretched and underpaid. The system is creaking, clogged and slow, and makes victims of victims; it can take two years for a rape charge to come to trial. If he improves access to justice, he will win a widely applauded victory.

Then there is penal reform. Prison staffing has been cut by a third in the past five years without any drop in the number of prisoners. Prison officers therefore feel it increasingly necessary to confine inmates to their cells, and to shut out the outside world altogether. But keeping prisoners inactive and isolated only creates misery and violence, and makes it more likely they will reoffend on release. Gove believes in the state’s moral responsibility to those in its charge. He also sees an opportunity. By moving the emphasis of the prison system towards rehabilitation and education, he can reduce prison numbers and hence spending: prisoners who put the work in can be considered for early release. Populist right-wing opposition effectively ended Kenneth Clarke’s attempt to do something similar, but Gove is a wilier player of the Tory press than late-period Clarke.

It is a challenge that could have been designed for Gove. In an early speech on the subject, he pointed out that a high proportion of prisoners come from homes scarred by poverty, violence or drug abuse; but for a twist of fate, that might have been him. The system is not nearly as large or complex as the school system, and is more amenable to reshaping from the centre. This time it is prisoners, not children, whose development is being stymied, and prison governors, rather than head teachers, who need to be empowered, to allow faith groups, charities, and employers, into prisons. The prison service, however, is resistant to partnering with outsiders.

In the first months in his new job, he has been conciliatory, charming and curious. He has praised barristers warmly and invited the likes of the Howard League for Penal Reform, usually kept at a distance from Tory governments, into his big tent. But then, this is how he started at Education. Friends of his told me he now understands, better than he did, the need to build alliances. But the gap between knowing something intellectually and conforming to it can be wide.

Lawyers, when he reflects, might make a juicy target (somebody who was present in the room for a cabinet meeting in the last parliament recalled Gove making a quip to the effect that he wanted a country in which there were more railway lines and fewer lawyers). Many voters will happily believe that barristers are guilty of Spanish practices. The prison service is a monopoly. If it is standing in the way of prisoners becoming the authors of their own life stories, won’t it have to be taken on?

In a column published the day before the general election, Sarah Vine raged against the government machine. Her targets included the civil service (“neither civil nor a service”), the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, and Speaker John Bercow. “Politics is the opposite of meritocratic,” she wrote: “keep your head down and get on with your job, and you’ll get no glory.” Her husband is hardly in need of this lesson. Reform through consensus may be a fine thing, but no glory accompanies it. There is likely to come a time soon when Michael Gove feels the need, perhaps after due provocation, to take the pin out of a grenade and hurl it into enemy territory.

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.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide