Gove's ultra-partisan style is a sign of things to come

Tory MPs see the Education Secretary's politicisation of his department as a case study in how to beat the Whitehall system.

It is usually a safe bet that any political story with Twitter in the opening paragraph is of marginal consequence to the overwhelming majority of British people, including those who use Twitter. It follows that a blog post, considering the political implications of such a story is of even more … let’s call it niche interest. Yet for those of us who are professionally obliged to get up and inside the workings of Westminster like a journalistic colonoscopy there is something pathologically fascinating about the row between the Observer newspaper and Michael Gove’s staff.

One side of the story is contained in yesterday’s Observer front page splash. The essence is that Gove minions have been using the @ToryEducation Twitter account as a device to launch personal attacks on journalists and generally wreak digital mischief in a way that has attracted internal censure and flagrantly ignores the code of conduct for ministerial special advisors.

The rebuttal from the Department for Education seems to amount, in essence, to a call from Dominic Cummings, one of Gove’s most trusted and loyal lieutenants, for the Observer to grow up, get over it and move on.

Depending what prejudice you bring to the party, this could be a shocking, bang-to-rights breach of protocol revealing a department out of control, raising serious questions of judgement, competence and morality; or it is a case of a desperate newspaper puffing up a bit of Westminster gossip to pursue a tribal vendetta. (The ill-feeling between the Observer’s political team and the Gove operation goes back a while, starting when the newspaper waged a vigorous and partly successful campaign against cuts to school sport funding in the coalition’s first year.)

Labour has joined the fray, calling for an inquiry into Gove’s advisors in relation to the Observer story and other vindictive briefings (the anonymous mauling of ex-minister Tim Loughton in the Spectator recently raised a few eyebrows as a particularly spiteful bit of briefing). But for the most part, Westminster players are hardly taking sides, preferring to watch the duel from the sidelines in bemusement.

There is, however, little doubt in Westminster that the Department for Education, under Gove’s leadership, has become a law unto itself. I have heard advisors boasting of their complete independence from Downing Street. The Education Secretary has surrounded himself with senior staff – both as special advisors and civil service appointments – who are loyal to him personally and committed to his urgent political agenda of liberating (as they would see it) as many schools as possible from local authority control as quickly as possible.

When Gove first became Education Secretary he and his immediate entourage saw the Department as hostile terrain, captured by the vested interests of the educational establishment and peopled with closet Labour sympathisers. That feeling was reinforced by leaks and briefings that felt like acts of deliberate sabotage. But Gove is a powerful and shrewd political operator. He has, in effect, broken resistance inside the DfE and created a parallel machine for delivering his policy agenda. There is more than a whiff of Bolshevism to the Gove style of politics. He is conducting a schools revolution and feels he cannot be held back by reactionary civil servants or weak-minded, pushover junior ministers or, for that matter, journalists who don't get it. The ends, in his view and the view of his inner circle, justify the means. With that culture of raw expediency, it is hardly surprising that the odd Twitter excursion gets a bit, er, political.

One point of wider significance in all of this: Gove is generally considered to be one of the more effective ministers in the government. Other Tories complain about their plans being foiled, occasionally by Liberal Democrats, but more usually by civil servants. The sense that Downing Street lacks a coherent agenda and cannot drive bold change through the sclerotic, risk-averse, Whitehall machine is the topic of frequent Conservative lament. At times the situation has been described as a Cold War between ministers and civil servants. Of the many reform programmes promised at the start of the parliament, Gove's is the biggest and most advanced.

In that context, Gove is seen as a conquering general on the side of political action against the forces of bureaucratic suffocation. His model of reformist Bolshevism is seen by some MPs, especially in the new 2010 Tory intake, as the only viable model for actually getting things done in power; far better than queasy, mealy-mouthed surrender to the principle of a non-partisan operation. Gove, say his cheerleaders, has politicised the department – and rightly so since it has worked. The reconfiguration of the whole schools system and curriculum might not otherwise be happening, certainly not at the current, hyperactive pace.

The spat with the Observer will blow over. But MPs and aspiring ministers will for some time to come be studying the example of how one Secretary of State built himself a mini-empire in a corner of Whitehall and deployed it in ruthless pursuit of his own personal revolution.

Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder