Is Michael Gove now going to be held to account for his advisers' "bullying tactics"?

There are accusations the Education Secretary misled Parliament.

Last week, my colleague Rafael Behr warned that the "ultra-partisan tactics" being used by Michael Gove at the Department for Education and reported by the Observer were just the start, given that the Education Secretary is considered to be one of the most effective Tory minister in government.

He's been proved right, and perhaps more quickly than we could have guessed, as today's Observer carries further details of how Gove is now facing accusations that he "may have misled parliament over claims of bullying and intimidation by key advisers". Toby Helm reports:

The Observer can reveal that a senior civil servant in the education secretary's department has received a secret payoff of about £25,000 out of public funds, after a lengthy grievance procedure involving members of Gove's team, including his special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the department's former head of communications, James Frayne.

While an investigation within the department cleared the men, and said no disciplinary action was necessary, the final judgment made clear that their conduct had on occasions fallen short of the levels expected and that the behaviour of Cummings and Frayne, who has since left the department, "has been perceived as intimidating". After the internal investigation was launched in the spring of 2012, the civil servant also decided to lodge a case with a tribunal, where the allegations would have been heard in public. A date was set for last month, but after further negotiations the financial settlement was agreed and the tribunal was cancelled.

On 23 January, however, Gove – who under the ministerial and special advisers' codes is responsible for the behaviour of his advisers (known as Spads) – denied knowledge of any allegations of misconduct during an appearance before the education select committee.

Observer columnist Nick Cohen has also weighed in on the subject, explaining how Gove stays above the fray as a "Tory gentleman", allowing his advisers to do his enforcing:

Here is how the retaliation works. The gang around him treat any slight to their master as an affront. The lead comes from his special advisers Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete. Cummings is a piece of work. He is a political hack of such reputation that Andy Coulson tried to blackball him from working for the coalition. If a former editor of the News of the World, now awaiting trial, warned me that a potential employee was too unsavoury to touch, I would pay attention. Gove did not.

Cummings and de Zoete can call on the services of Paul Staines, author of the Guido Fawkes website. They also have Telegraph journalists, the Murdoch press and most of the rightwing blogosphere at their disposal.

Part of the allegations against Gove's advisers revolve around their alleged use of the @ToryEducation Twitter feed to publish personal, partisan attacks against Gove's critics. If Gove's special advisers are indeed behind it, it would constitute a breach of both the special advisers' and the civil service code. The virulent nature of its attacks have started attracting wider attention in recent weeks, as NS deputy editor Helen Lewis noted recently:

It's long been suspected that Gove considers himself a viable future Tory leader. As a former journalist, he already has excellent contacts among right-wing hacks, and it would seem that his advisers have made pains to maintain those links. Most definitely one to watch.

Michael Gove - a "Tory gentleman"? Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser