Gove claims Clegg is blocking Tory policy due to Lib Dem leadership plot

Clegg's opposition to new childcare ratios is due to "a campaign" by Vince Cable's ally Lord Oakeshott to oust him, says Gove.

As he demonstrated on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Michael Gove, a former Times journalist, has lost none of his talent for generating headlines. In the course of 10 minutes, he suggested that a Lib Dem leadership plot was the reason Nick Clegg was blocking plans to relax childcare ratios, confirmed that he would vote "no" if an EU referendum was held today and said that he would abstain when the Commons votes on a Tory amendment criticising the absence of a referendum bill from the Queen's Speech.

First, then, on Clegg and childcare. Gove suggested that his opposition to Liz Truss's plan was almost entirely due to the attempt by Vince Cable's ally Lord Oakeshott to oust him as leader. He said:

I don't think we can understand Nick Clegg's position without also appreciating the position that he's in because of internal Lib Dem politics...there's a campaign at the moment being led by Matthew Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat in the Lords, to try to destabilise Nick Clegg because Matthew Oakeshott wants Vince Cable to succeed him

It's hardly a secret that Oakeshott wants Cable installed as Lib Dem leader but no Conservative cabinet minister has ever referred explicitly to this fact. Clegg, who outlined in detail his concerns over the childcare plans on his LBC show earlier this week, is likely to be furious at the suggestion that his position is motivated by politics, not principle.

But the mischievous Gove, artfully seeking to turn the conversation on to Lib Dem divisions, went on:

Nick, understandably, needs to show Lib Dems that he's fighting hard...you only need to look at the newspapers today to see that Lord Oakeshott is on maneouvres, he's trying to promote Vince. It's understandable that within the Lib Dems these things go on. Nick has to show a bit of leg, as it were, on these issues.

On Europe, asked if he would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held today (as the Mail on Sunday reported last year), Gove confirmed for the first time that he would. He told James Lansdale:

Yes [I would vote to leave the EU], I'm not happy with our position in the European Union

After Nigel Lawson's intervention earlier this week, Gove's words represent another significant escalation of tensions over this issue. Tim Montgomerie lists Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Chris Grayling, Justine Greening, Philip Hammond, Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude as other "definite or probable EU Outers". All of these ministers (and others) will now come under pressure to say whether they, like Gove, would also vote "no" in a referendum today.

Gove added that while there would be "certain advantages" to being outside the EU (another significant admission), "the best deal" would be for Britain to successfully renegotiate its membership. David Cameron's hope is that the plausible threat of withdrawal will make it easier to achieve that.

Update: Here's how Oakeshott has responded to Gove.

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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