Workers against Wall Street

President Obama’s “shock and awe” statism is failing. On the eve of the midterm elections, the US ec

Gary, Indiana

We're hurtling through downtown Gary at about 75 miles an hour but Officer Lilley, at the wheel of our car, remains relaxed. He's telling me languid stories about the AK-47s that the local teenagers carry, about the gangs, the drugs, the overtime. Then the city's "shot spotter" pings an alert on to his laptop, which is wedged right next to the handbrake.

He mutters a call for assistance into his radio and swings the police car on to the forecourt of a gas station where about 30 people are running, pointing, strung out, screaming recriminations. There's been a fight, but the fighters are gone, as is the kid who decided to let off his pistol. Nobody is dead. Everybody is shouting into the face of Officer Lilley, a black cop in a black crowd, who simply drawls soothing phrases back at them.

Eventually seven police cars arrive and the cops fan out to disperse the crowd of onlookers, many of whom they seem to know by name. Two years ago there were times when the city could field only five cars in total on a night shift, but federal dollars have paid for 96 new vehicles and allowed Gary Police to re-employ 11 laid-off officers. This short, sharp exercise in armed social work is possible only because of the fiscal stimulus.

Gary is a city where 84 per cent of the population is black and one-third of the people live in poverty. It is one of the most obvious places on earth where an influx of taxpayer dollars might do some good. It has 3,000 abandoned homes and a decaying infrastructure, and its public finances stand two years away from bankruptcy. Yet what is obvious, amid these wrecked streets and impoverished lives, is how little the stimulus has achieved.

Gary's urban texture - grass and ivy over broken concrete - is testimony to what happens when an economic model fails. In its deserted downtown district, the churches, the concert hall, the theatre, the ballet studio, the Gothic apartments from whose windows steel magnates once surveyed the city's pulsating wealth, stand ruined, unsecured against intruders.

Though atypical of America, Gary's broken landscape is spectacularly typical of what has gone wrong in the country at large. Its meagre progress, two years into the Obama administration, signals the president's failure to solve America's most basic problems and to deliver to the very people whose votes put him in the White House.

The problem for America today is that another economic model has failed: one based on globalisation, cheap credit, home ownership and mass consumption. Six million Americans have fallen below the poverty line since December 2007. The median income has fallen by 4.7 per cent. In the same period, more than 2.5 million homes have been repossessed. And that only compounds the long-term problems America hid beneath the financial euphoria of the boom years - but average real wages have stagnated since the 1990s; the number without health insurance has grown by ten million in a decade and stands at 50 million.

The most basic problem is this: in a system based on credit, the credit system is not functioning. It's easy to spot the malfunction in a city like Gary: I saw one home for sale at $7,900 cash, the scrawled street-corner placard adding, by way of explanation, the word "Foreclosure". The only part of the credit system that does function is the destructive part; the "payday loans" store on Gary's main street is the only thing left with working neon signs. Most of the other shops are closed for good.

With a swollen mass of people unable to borrow, save or spend, the great dynamo of the world economy - American consumption - is sputtering. And the stimulus has not yet managed to restart it.

Eighteen months ago, the mayor of Gary, Rudy Clay, told me that all the city needed was $400m. With that, said the dapper veteran of the civil rights movement, Gary would "fly like an eagle and once again make America proud". In the event, the city was given just $266m - most of that earmarked for education - and for spending not on current costs, but on reorganisation.

Of the $24m Clay applied for to knock down derelict homes, $2m was delivered - and most of the buildings are still standing. It took 18 months for the money to pay for new streetlights to filter through the system. And, with $266m, Gary has managed to create the grand total of 327 jobs. That is more than $800,000 per job.

“We were last in line," Clay complains. "We keep pressing the State of Indiana for more money - to fix our roads, for example - but the problem is they spent all the money. They probably thought, 'Well, Gary voted in large numbers for the president, so the president can take care of them.'" A glance at the city's finances reveals a more complex picture. Its financial controls are archaic, its debts to other agencies high; and its tax base is heavily dependent on one source - a property tax that brings in 80 per cent of Gary's revenue.

In 2008 the Republican-controlled state government of Indiana brought in tax-capping measures that will, by 2012, halve the amount of property tax Gary can collect. While richer, whiter counties surrounding Gary have their own local income taxes, Gary does not - for the simple reason that there is very little income to tax. Within this system, redistribution is impossible unless the state and federal governments make it happen.

But that is where Gary's problems run into the culture war that has gripped America.The governor of Indiana is Mitch Daniels, a fiscal conservative who has made his reputation by balancing the state's books, privatising Indiana's major roads system in the process. Daniels - unlike some other Republican governors - agreed to accept the fiscal stimulus money, but on condition that the state retained control. He then decreed that the stimulus could not be used to fix the balance sheets of near-bankrupt city governments like Gary. Only major, one-off projects would receive federal dollars.

So, in the midst of the largest fiscal stimulus since the Second World War, one of America's poorest cities is being forced to cut taxes and cut spending. By 2012 its entire tax take will not be enough to cover the police, fire and ambulance services. Officer Lilley and his colleagues know that all the problems that fuel the crime - drugs, truancy, poor housing, unemployment - will remain unaddressed.

President Obama's stimulus was formulated with high hopes: two-thirds of the $787bn spent would be delivered not through the Bush-era mechanism of tax cuts, but through the overtly Keynesian channel of public spending. Jared Bernstein and Christina Romer, economists on Obama's transition team, predicted in January 2009 that the stimulus money would "create three to four million jobs" by the end of 2010, 90 per cent of them in the private sector. They projected that unemployment would peak at just 8 per cent in 2009.

The Romer/Bernstein forecast, like much of the Obama stimulus plan, was a triumph of optimism. Unemployment reached 10 per cent a year ago and has not been below 9.5 per cent since, even with the stimulus. Private-sector employment has shrunk. The money has been spent, but the jobs and growth did not follow.

The paucity of achievement is all the more remarkable given that, two months after the Romer/Bernstein report was published, the Federal Reserve was forced to launch its own, much bigger monetary stimulus package, known as quantitative easing (QE). By printing money and using it to buy a mixture of bank and government debt, the Fed pumped $1.75trn into the US economy.

Yet the combined results are poor. Growth is slowing. The threat of deflation is so clear that the Federal Reserve will, on the morrow of the midterm elections, be forced to throw several hundred billions more into QE.

In the housing market, there is already a double dip. Even with mortgage interest rates cut to their lowest ever, the sheer volume of un-sold properties - 1.5 million empty and a further five million trapped in a "shadow" market - has begun to push house prices down again. The banking sector has begun to shudder in turn at the prospect of another round of mortgage losses.

It is this tangible failure of economic strategy that is sapping the energy and credibility of the Obama administration. It has provided the American right with a convincing narrative to unite the plebeian conservative and "coastal elite" strands of Republicanism.

Governor Daniels, a mainstream Republican who is being tipped as the man to run against Obama in 2012, calls Obama's policy "shock and awe statism". But the real shock is how little has been achieved. Statewide, the whole of Indiana has managed to spend $4bn of stimulus money to create 10,000 jobs.

“It's not enough," the governor says, "and I would caution you that while I know the $4bn is real, I cannot say the same about the 10,000 jobs. We just don't know. They [the federal government] don't know."

Nationally, he says, "We've had this perverse outcome in which the private sector has continued to shrink and the public sector has gotten bigger. Frankly, it looks more like a way to take care of favoured constituencies than an economic policy."

So, for the mainstream American right, what explains the failure of the Obama stimulus is "crowding out": it is the size of the state that has prevented the private sector from responding to the crisis with fresh hiring and company start-ups. In addition, consistently large majorities polled by the Pew Research Centre believe that state intervention has benefited the banks and large corporations only - leaving the middle class, the poor and small businesses to rot. Finally, there is a growing fear that the size of the budget deficit will drag the United States into penury. Daniels tells me that the country faces a "survival-level threat".

It is in this context that the narrative of the Tea Party movement has emerged. And you have only to travel a hundred kilometres east of Gary, along the patched-up private motorways of Indiana, to hear it in full voice.

The hall is swaying to the tune of "God Bless the USA" - a song for which everyone except the journalists stands up, many clenching fists against chests. The crowd is 99 per cent white and 100 per cent Christian. Of those to whom I speak during the interval, several believe that the president is neither American nor Christian. One is selling a set of playing cards depicting Obama as a "Kenyan-born, lying, arrogant Muslim communist that hates America".

What the Tea Party objects to is the president's policies of state intervention. What it adds to conventional fiscal conservatism is the idea that all state intervention into economic life is immoral, un-Christian and unconstitutional. The plebeian right is convinced that a city like Gary neither deserves stimulus money nor can use it to any good effect.

Jackie Walorski, a Republican who sits in the Indiana legislature and is standing for the US House of Representatives on 2 November, tells me: "We are watching a freight train of spending in this country. Americans don't live that way. We're the land of capitalism; we're not the land of taking people's public tax money and throwing it into a concept that isn't proven, that has not produced jobs."

Does she begrudge the money spent in Gary? Would she have blocked the cash for schools, more police and police vehicles?

“It's not a question of begrudging," says Wal­orski, a 47-year-old former TV journalist. "Just because it's gone to education, police and fire doesn't mean the money has done anything in those areas. That's not what the key is in this country. You can continue to write cheques but recovery comes from private-sector jobs and holding a line on spending."

What is sapping the energy of Democratic Party supporters, even in a place like Gary, is that if you strip Walorski's words of all the rhetoric, economically they ring true. America's governance system, lacking the basic capacity, and in some places the will, to spend the money, looks ill suited to delivering maximum bang for 787 billion bucks.

But the rhetoric itself has material impact, and way beyond the worried Christian faces assembled to hear it. It is a rhetoric that - intentionally or otherwise - identifies the recipients of state spending as the enemies of the American constitution. From Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, that means the public sector, migrants and the African-American poor.

When Walorski takes the stage at a Tea Party rally in the small rural town of Angola, Indiana as warm-up act for the Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, she points to a giant US flag behind her and whips the audience to its feet with the warning that they have just days "to fight for who we are in America".

She continues: "If we don't fight for freedom, liberty, individual destiny, they are redefining this country out from underneath us. The battle we're facing is to defend this flag on our turf, our soil. When our soldiers came out of the boats in Normandy they literally walked over the bodies of other soldiers to fight for our freedom. The battle we face today, the ideological war that we're fighting, is for standing up for a constitution. The land of the free and the home of the brave is under assault today."

It is worth unpacking this statement. In the literal text, Obama and the Democrat-voting Congress are the "they" Walorski refers to. But America's airwaves are alive with the angry voices of enraged white Christians, channelled towards coherence by the right-wing commentators. No one on the stage in Indiana needs to assert that Obama is "a racist" with “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" - because Beck already said so on TV, on 28 July 2009.

Back in Gary, for the black community activists trying to hold things together, it feels as if the word "they" has another meaning.

“When you turn on the TV and hear all this anger, all this vitriol," says Ben Clement, who helps run a community theatre group for teenagers, "well, it's culture-based, race-based, and it's frightening. And it shows that there's a disconnect - it's almost like we're living on two separate planets."

Clement, like many Obama-supporting black professionals, rues the complacency of a generation that has drifted out of activism. "Our parents went through the civil rights movement, but for our generation it's been a time of rest, where we didn't think those were going to be issues. Now, when I see Obama vilified, my stomach tightens up, because he is the best of us, the best of what we have to offer. If they feel like that about him - how would they treat me?"

This is the real culture war - an artillery battle of words in which the two sides never meet.

It has blindsided America's political commentators. The polling organisations record no perceptible increase in the numbers of extreme right- and left-wing views. But distrust and fear are tangible once you get where the American media dare not venture - into the honest and considered thoughts of ordinary people.

So, where does the battle go after 2 November? Economists on the Keynesian left of the Democratic Party are now clamouring for a further fiscal stimulus as they frantically try to recover ground in the ideological war they have essentially lost. Judging by the polling on all possible outcomes, the Congressional arithmetic makes another fiscal stimulus impossible. And even if it were possible, it is difficult to see how a second stimulus could overcome the institutional problems that Gary typifies.

Over at the Federal Reserve, the chairman, Ben Bernanke, is inching towards a further round of quantitative easing. In September, he conceded that even if the Fed did opt for a second round of quantitative easing, the impact of this might be softened: though central bankers have no way of knowing how much increased demand they get from QE, they suspect it works best as an anti-panic measure, not as an additional boost. Once "QE2" is begun, the Fed has in effect fired the last bullet in the clip. It may signal the start of a unique period of policy stasis in which all conventional options have been used up.

One route out would be through a trade war and dollar devaluation - a route as popular among the Democratic grass roots as it is among the Tea Party activists.

Back in Indiana, Walorski swaps insults with the Democratic incumbent, Representative Joe Donnelly, whose support for the stimulus, she claims, has "exported jobs to China". Meanwhile, in the union hall of Local 1066, which represents employees of US Steel Corp in Gary, workers are calling for the government to impose tough trade sanctions against Chinese steel imports.

But, for now, the Obama administration is sticking to the economic doctrines that formed the shared belief set of both parties since the 1990s: globalisation and a strong dollar. Even as Bernanke's promise of further QE caused the dollar to slide against other currencies, the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, took to the airwaves to promote keeping the dollar strong. "It is very important," he said, "for people to understand that the United States of America and no country around the world can devalue its way to prosperity . . . It is not a viable, feasible strategy and we will not engage in it."

Another route out is the one offered by Governor Daniels: a new, national, one-year fiscal stimulus of between $400bn and $800bn, including suspension of payroll taxes, in return for equivalent cuts in state spending and a bonfire of business regulations. Though fiscally neutral, a tax cut on this scale could put money where neither state spending nor money printing has yet managed to put it - into the pockets of American consumers.

Yet the problem remains: without restarting the credit market, nothing can sustain growth. There needs to be some kind of defibrillating shock. The American patient, with all its problems of obesity and fast food, has to have its heart restarted before the rehab and the statins can get to work.

For two years, America's political cycle and its economic crisis have been parallel stories, the one played out on brash television shouting shows, the other handled by the super-brained east coast policy elite in the privacy of summits and retreats. After the midterm elections, the two cycles will collide. Either the Obama administration will find a new kind of circuit breaker for the economy, or America will face stagnant growth, deflation and the possibility of a further banking crisis.

In Gary, the people know what they want the president to do: to break with Wall Street, ditch the doctrine of free trade, end foreclosures and deliver jobs. There is, despite the political chasm between the union guys and the Tea Party activists, a parallel desire for politicians to break with the lobbying industry and speak for the people. "He [Obama] has to drive the agenda," says Steve Dunn, a steelworker. "If you ever listen to a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it's basically you against me; it's the working class against Wall Street. And that's the way things are today - but I don't hear that from President Obama."

The irony of American politics, on the eve of the midterms, is that if anybody owns the narrative of "workers against Wall Street", it is the ultra-conservative, free-market right.

Paul Mason is the economics editor of BBC Newsnight. His reports from the US can be seen at A revised edition of his book "Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed" (Verso, £8.99) is out now.

David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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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