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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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