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 Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.