For Arabs in Israel, a house is not a home

Three representatives of Hamas have been forced to seek sanctuary at the Red Cross compound in East

Day 33 of the sit-in at the Red Cross compound in East Jerusalem began much like those that preceded it. The three Hamas parliamentarians who have been charged with disloyalty to a state whose jurisdiction they do not recognise awoke at 6am in the meeting room on the second floor of the white stone building in the Sheikh Jarrah area. Ahmad Atoun, who was an imam before he began his brief political career, led the first prayers of the day. The men washed in a bucket, ate breakfast and at ten o'clock came down to the L-shaped courtyard that has become the site of their protest. The plain white walls of the courtyard are decorated with posters that explain their case: "Jerusalem Is An Occupied City." "We Will Stay Here For Ever." "We Will Not Leave Our Homes."

Photographs of the three bearded men, and a fourth colleague who is in prison, were superimposed on an image of the gold-plated Dome of the Rock - the holiest site in the city in which they were born, and from which the Israeli authorities are attempting to expel them.

When I arrived five minutes later, a television crew was setting up outside the green metal gates at the entrance to the courtyard, and one of the teenage boys who attends to the men and their guests was updating the sign that keeps a tally of the length of their confinement. As the numerals changed from 32 to 33, Mohammed Totah, Khaled Abu Arafeh and Ahmad Atoun took their seats beneath the canopy where they would spend the day receiving guests. The chairs lined up against the walls in the traditional Arab manner are constantly in use, and sometimes the courtyard is full to overflowing: on Friday lunchtimes, an awning is erected in the street, and an imam says prayers to the assembled crowd. According to Red Cross officials, most of East Jerusalem society has passed through the courtyard. Three British peers - Jenny Tonge, Nazir Ahmed and Raymond Hylton - have been among the guests.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions in which they live, the three men at the centre of the protest were smartly dressed in pressed shirts and dark trousers. Until 2006, Moham­med Totah taught business administration at al-Quds University and Abu Arafeh was an engineer, while the preacher, Ahmad Atoun, worked for various Islamic charities. Yet their lack of experience did not prevent them from standing as candidates for the "Change and Reform" movement, as Hamas was called in the legislative elections held in the Palestinian territories in January 2006; if anything, it was an advantage, because the endemic corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which was dominated by Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, had turned the voters against the political elite. "People knew we were good Muslims and they trusted us," said Mohammed Totah, a tall and well-mannered man with thinning hair and a neatly trimmed beard.

Hamas, which was set up in the Gaza Strip in 1988, is known in the west for the crude, anti-Semitic rhetoric of its founding charter and for its terrorist activities. Its paramilitary wing has killed several hundred Israeli citizens, through the use of suicide bombers and other means, yet it also runs a network of charitable organisations in the Palestinian territories, and is respected for the even-handed way in which it distributes resources. In 2006, it won 44 per cent of the vote; Mohammed Totah and Ahmad Atoun won two of the 74 seats that gave it a majority in the 132-seat parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Abu Arafeh became minister for Jerusalem affairs.

“The world witnessed that we were democratically elected," Abu Arafeh said through his colleague Mohammed Totah, who speaks the best English of the three. But the men had little chance to implement their mandate. "The European Union said there must be democratic elections, and we must accept the results," says Mohammed Totah. "But afterwards, they said, 'No, we will not accept Hamas.'"

Four months after the election, the then Israeli minister of the interior revoked the men's rights to residency in Jerusalem and ordered them to leave Jerusalem and Israel "permanently". Events prevented the order being carried out: before the 30-day limit had expired, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas militants in Gaza, and Israel began arresting officials and representatives of the movement. The three men, together with their colleague Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir (who is distinguished in the many posters by his bright red beard, which he dyes in honour of a tradition supposedly established by the Prophet Muham­mad), spent the next three and a half years in Israeli prisons.

That none of them has been accused of terrorist offences is irrelevant as far as Israel is concerned - it regards Hamas's paramilitary, political and charitable activities as inextric-ably linked and mutually reinforcing, and the men's attitudes to Hamas's use of violence would do little to persuade it that it is wrong. If they could "secure their rights" by peaceful means, Mohammed Totah said, then they would do so, but negotiations have led nowhere, and under international law they have the right to use all available means to resist the occupation. "It isn't violence," he insisted repeatedly, "it's resistance - and even if you don't want to resist, the occupation will give you no choice. It will come to your house, it will kill your children, it will take your land, it will put you in prison."

The four men were released at the end of May, and the Israeli authorities promptly "unfroze" the 30-day order that had been issued in 2006. Mohammed Abu Teir - the eldest of the four, and the most experienced politician, who has spent a total of 30 years in Israeli prisons - was told to leave Jerusalem by 19 June. The others were told to leave by 3 July.

The concern their case provoked was sufficient to overcome the bitter factional dispute between Fatah and Hamas. All four men went to see Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at his office in Ramallah on two occasions during the 30-day period. He told the men that the deportations were "a red line" and they couldn't be permitted to proceed. In public, he described the decision to deport them as a "grave act", and yet he was unable to do anything to prevent it.

Mohammed Abu Teir said that he would not leave the country where his family has lived for 500 years, or renounce his membership of a parliament to which he was democratically elected, and he was arrested and imprisoned "for staying in Israel illegally". The other three knew their time would come, and sought sanctuary at the Red Cross compound on 1 July. The aim of their protest is simple, says Mohammed Totah: "We want our rights - nothing more - and we will stay here until the international community recognises the justice of our case."

It is not the first time that Israel has attempted to deport Hamas representatives: on 17 December 1992, it responded to the killing of a border police officer by deporting 415 of the organi­sation's leading figures to Lebanon. The tactic was meant to destroy Hamas, but instead it provoked a wave of international condemnation that enhanced its status. "Everyone wanted to meet with them, Hamas became stronger, and, in the end, Israel was forced to bring them back," said Abu Arafeh.

On 18 December 1992, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 799, which expressed "its firm opposition" to the measure, and reaffirmed that the "deportation of civilians constitutes a contravention" of Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies "to all the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem". Eighteen years later, the men's lawyers have urged the Security Council to hold Israel accountable by Resolution 799, though Israel is unlikely to comply, simply because it does not recognise East Jerusalem as occupied territory. The international community regards Israel's decision to annex the areas of East Jerusalem that it captured during the Six Day War of 1967 as illegal, but the Israelis insist that Jerusalem is the "eternal and indivisible capital" of the Jewish people.

Since 1967, they have built settlements for 250,000 people on occupied land and devised various policies to combat demographic trends which indicate that the Jewish proportion of the city's population could fall to no more than 50 per cent by 2035. One-off measures, such as the decision to exclude almost a third of the Arab-Palestinian population from the city's first census, and the construction of the "separation wall" along a route designed to "remove 50,000 Arabs from East Jerusalem", as one official put it, are complemented by a long-term policy of revoking and restricting Palestinian residency rights. There are said to be at least 10,000 unregistered children in East Jerusalem; a child who has only one parent with residency rights does not receive a Jerusalem ID, and a person without residency rights cannot win them by marriage - though a person with them may well lose them. Residency rights can be revoked if a resident of East Jerusalem cannot fulfil stringent bureaucratic requirements to prove that the city is their "centre of life", or if they are said to have "severed their connection" to the city.

Israel revoked the residency rights of 8,558 Palestinians between 1967 and 2007, yet this is the first time that it has attempted to do so on the grounds of "disloyalty". Whether rumours that Israel has drawn up a list of 315 people who are next in line for revocation of residency status are true or not, the vagueness of the charge concerns the parliamentarians' lawyer, Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights organisation Adalah. "If this decision is final," he told me, "the conclusion is that residency can be revoked from any Palestinian engaging in public political activity. Today it's a Hamas member; tomorrow they'll revoke the residency of a Fatah member, or a senior PA adviser. Or a Palestinian journalist."

The protest tent at the Red Cross compound is just one of several that have been set up across Jerusalem in the past two years. There is another in the village of Silwan, where a group of settlers that controls the archaeological site and visitor attraction known as the "City of David" is attempting to expand the Jewish presence, and another on the far side of Sheikh Jarrah, where settlers have displaced two Palestinian families from their homes.

Sheikh Jarrah is a typically run-down district of East Jerusalem, though also home to many of the city's embassies, hotels and international NGOs. On my way back to the Red Cross compound later in the afternoon, I watched an Orthodox Jew in tailcoat and ringlets emerge from the turning to the contested houses - 300 metres beyond the hotel where Tony Blair maintains lavish headquarters on his rare visits to the Middle East - and walk past a patch of derelict land where a group of Palestinian kids were playing. Such sights are increasingly common in East Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas insists that Israel must stop building settlements as a precondition for starting peace talks, but President Barack Obama's administration has failed to force Israel to comply. Last November, Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing administration agreed to a ten-month, partial freeze on settlement-building in the West Bank, but it insisted that Jerusalem was exempt. And in March, the interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, precipitated the most severe breach in US-Israeli relations in years when he announced, during a visit by the US vice-president, Joe Biden, the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

The previous day, George Mitchell, the US peace envoy to the Middle East, had announced that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to hold four months of indirect peace talks - the first since December 2008, when Israel began the three-week assault on Gaza that it called Operation Cast Lead. Biden had begun the day by asserting America's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security", but finished it by condemning "the substance and timing of the announcement".

Abbas, whose democratic mandate has expired, and whose credibility with the Palestinian electorate has been severely weakened, had little choice but to pull out of the talks. When they eventually began in May, they made no progress, and yet the Americans pressured both parties to move to face-to-face negotiations.

On 20 August, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that Netanyahu and Abbas will meet in Washington, DC on 2 September. It is highly unlikely that these new talks will lead to a successful conclusion: unless the Israelis renew their moratorium on settlement development, which expires in September, there will be only the briefest opportunity for engagement on the possibility of creating a circumscribed Palestinian state on the West Bank. And in any case, the other final status issues - the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem - are likely to prove insurmountable.

The parliamentarians' fate would form no more than an insignificant footnote in any negotiation, and yet it is indicative of the deadlock over the city's status. When I arrived at the compound, I was told that the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, had been to see them earlier in the day. It had been a busy afternoon.

At three o'clock, the men had retired upstairs to pray and sleep, and at five they had handed out school leaving certificates to four coachloads of students. In the evening, the men's families arrived to see them. Each man has at least four children, and by eight o'clock, as the call to prayer from a nearby mosque drifted through the evening air, there were as many as 50 people in the courtyard. The men and women formed separate lines facing the wall of the building, their discarded shoes heaped beside the carpets that served as prayer mats, as Ahmad Atoun intoned prayers in a rich baritone.

Afterwards, the guests sat on the chairs beneath the awnings, or remained seated on the mats as a boy distributed bitter coffee in plastic cups and a girl in a blue headscarf passed round an ice-cream tub filled with home-made fig rolls. Children ran in and out of the gates, or darted through the open doors of the Red Cross building. Mohammed Totah gestured towards a girl in a dark dress. "I have an eight-year-old daughter, and she says to me that families all over the world live under one roof - why aren't you allowed to come home?"

The men say the attempt to deport them will prove as counterproductive as the mass deportation of 1992: they see it as another step on the long road to Palestinian liberation. Yet such optimism seems at odds with the precariousness of their situation. The Red Cross does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, and the main police station in East Jerusalem is no more than a hundred metres up the hill.

Israel has recently begun inquiries into the deaths of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, the ship that was attacked by Israeli forces as it attempted to carry aid to Gaza in May. Mohammed Totah believes it is only the disastrous consequences of that raid that have prevented their rearrest. "There are no red lines for the occupation, but after they killed nine people on the ship, they don't want to add another crime to their account. They don't want to do it now, but they will come, sooner or later - maybe after a few days, maybe less."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the NS. He is working on a book about Hebron.

How Hamas works

The role of Hamas - considered a terrorist organisation by the EU and US - divides broadly into two main spheres of operation: social programmes such as building infrastructure, and the militant operations carried out by the underground Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.

Given its beginnings as a guerrilla movement, Hamas retains a degree of secrecy about its power structures. Gaza is led by the disputed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (who was dismissed in 2007 by President Mahmoud Abbas but ignored the decree). However, most of the day-to-day decisions are made by the political bureau, chaired by Khaled Meshal and made up of about ten members, many of whom live in exile in Syria.

Major policy decisions are made by the Shura Council, an internal parliament consisting of roughly 50 members inside and outside the Palestinian territories. It cannot meet often, because some of its members are unable to travel into Gaza or the West Bank for fear of assassination.

Meshal's political bureau in Syria is the main fundraising arm of Hamas, and manages relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Some argue that this makes the bureau more pragmatic than the leadership within the territories. However, there is a question mark over how much control Meshal, though the group's leader, has in this uncohesive organisation.

Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

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Why are right wing parties thriving across Europe?

The resilience of the right in Europe and the Anglosphere.

On 15 September 2008, Wall Street’s oldest investment bank filed for bankruptcy, sending shock waves through the world’s financial markets. Leh­man Brothers was not “too big to fail” ­after all. Its collapse heralded the main, most perilous phase of the global financial crisis – and it seemed to have exposed the limits of right-wing orthodoxy and unbridled free-market capitalism. Indeed, Ed Miliband was spurred to run for the Labour leadership by a belief that politics had shifted to the left after the crash.

Yet, seven years on from Lehman’s implosion, right-wing parties are thriving. In the UK the Conservative Party won a majority in May for the first time in 23 years. Across 39 countries in Europe that we analysed parties of the right are in government in 26 of them. Add in the Anglosphere – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – and right-wing parties control the legislature in 30 of the 43 countries. This is four more than before the crash.

Why is this? One big factor is that the centre left has not been able to answer the question of what it exists for when there is no money left. As management of the economy has become a much more important issue, right-wing parties have benefited because they “are often labelled better economic managers”, says Andrew Little, leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. Thomas Hofer, an Austrian political consultant, says: “In times of crises, conservatives might be trusted more, as they are seen to keep an eye on a balanced budget. When there’s growth, social democrats are – or were – trusted to spread the wealth.”

Relentlessly, and often misleadingly, parties of the right, including the Tories, have drummed home this message of superior economic competency. “The PR of the centre right is unbeatable,” says André Krouwel, a lecturer in political science at VU University Amsterdam, even though “empirical evidence shows that left-wing governments or coalitions actually perform better and cause much less deep crises”.

The crash has also damaged the left by making voters more insular and defensive, especially towards immigration. Parties of the centre right, meanwhile, “have always been more associated with a rather tougher line on immigration” and so “are likely to do better at elections where it’s up in the mix”, says the Conservative Party historian Tim Bale. The populist right has been the biggest beneficiary of this shift, attracting working-class people who once voted for left-wing parties but now fear immigration is threatening their livelihoods. The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, told the NS last year: “Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe.”

Ukip has been stymied by the British voting system, but parties of the radical right elsewhere in Europe often benefit from proportional representation. Ultimately this helps the mainstream right, too: as voters shift from parties of the left to the radical right, “It makes right-wing majorities and coalition formation easier,” Krouwel says.

In some countries leaders of populist-right parties have portrayed themselves as the protectors of a welfare state under attack from liberal immigration policies. The Danish People’s Party, for instance, has branded itself as “representing classical social-democratic values combined with a tough line on immigration”, says Klaus Petersen, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark. He believes that the failure of centre-left parties to acknowledge and help those people negatively affected by the forces of globalisation and immigration has been a big mistake. The consequences are clear in the Nordic countries, historically the fiefdom of social democracy. Right-wing parties today control Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway, leaving only Sweden in the hands of the centre left.

Only southern Europe provides much solace for the left. Syriza holds power in Greece but it is only in Italy, largely as a result of Silvio Berlusconi’s self-destruction, that the left displays any great sense of vibrancy (see above). In the west, the Parti Socialiste holds power in France, though François Hollande’s time in office has been tumultuous.

The left is also battling against trends that pre-date 2008. The growth of “individualisation” since the 1970s is the most important structural factor in the success of the right, Krouwel says. “The idea of free and individual choice undermined the traditional drivers of left-wing thought: solidarity and state interventionism.” Right-wing parties have also been helped by the collapse of manufacturing, the decline in trade union membership and the rise in self-employment.

The best could be yet to come for the right. Across Europe and the Anglosphere populations are ageing. “[This] benefits the right, because voters shift right as they get older,” says Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College in London. The “old vote” counts even more because so few young people vote: across Europe last year, only 28 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted in the European parliamentary elections, compared to 51 per cent of those 55 and over. In addition, there is an apparent rightward shift in young people’s attitudes. In the UK research shows that the “millennial generation” has moved to the right of its parents in its attitudes to the economy and the state and its confidence in the welfare state.

So much, then, for the idea of the economic crash heralding another dawn of ­social democracy. Instead, it ushered in an age of the right.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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

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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