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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.