In a political arena largely devoid of obvious talent Michael Gove is a star turn

Nelson Jones <3 Michael Gove.

I love Michael Gove. In an era of bland managerialist politicians the education secretary stands out for his wit, his openness to ideas and his genuine passion for his job. An interview with almost every other front-rank politician (with the exception, if he counts, of Boris Johnson) has become, even for political junkies, an excruciating self-torture, as carefully-rehearsed phrases cascade through the air, regardless of what question is actually being asked. Gove, by contrast, is a joy to listen to. In one recent exchange on World at One, he failed to dismiss entirely talk of Tory dissatisfaction with David Cameron's leadership in the wake of Ukip's recent advance. But he did give the English language a new word – "bonkerooney" – one that well encapsulates the effect he has on many of his detractors both within and without the world of education.

Gove was doing what he does best – or at least doing what he evidently most enjoys – yesterday, tweaking the noses of the educational establishment. Of course it's a truism of British politics that the minister (whether Labour or Conservative – remember David Blunkett?) must always pose as the lonely champion of parents and children against trendy educationalists and complacent teachers. Gove, though, does it with greater than average conviction. His latest speech, given to an audience of teachers from the private sector, garnered headlines largely because of one of the examples he used: a hitherto-obscure online resource that encouraged Year 11 iGCSE students to depict the rise of Hitler in terms of characters from the Mr Men books. The resource's creator accused Gove of "academic snobbery" and defended his concept as giving students a "challenge to get them to think about it in a different way." But it's hard not to see the concept as both infantile and in rather poor taste.

The example, no doubt, was an extreme one, but it served Gove's wider points about the need for rigour and high expectations in all parts of the school system, from the basics of reading and arithmetic, through the study of literature, history and the sciences to a panoply of extra-curricular activities. Teachers and parents should all be grateful for an education secretary who, in contrast to his predecessor Ed Balls who dropped the word from the title of his department, wants to put education at the centre of national life. Instead he has become a convenient hate-figure, his aims at times wilfully misunderstood.

Take history. Gove has been criticised for curriculum proposals based on dates, facts and "heroes and heroines" of British history. A group of leading historians condemned the proposals' "narrowness", claiming that they risked depriving children of "the vast bulk of the precious inheritance of the past" – by which they meant the study of other peoples and other places. There is indeed something naively Whiggish, to a professional historian, about his view of the subject as telling "the British story of progress". But national myths matter, however open to challenge on particular points of detail. Internalising the broad sweep of history, knowing who came after whom, is essential for a sense of rootedness in one's own culture. And children respond naturally to stories.

History can of course be used to teach analytical skills – skills that are needed properly to get to grips with the subject, indeed. But to concentrate on such an instrumental use of history risks reducing it to discrete nuggets of unconnected and interchangeable material. The internal politics of the Ming dynasty is just as fascinating, objectively, as that of the Tudors, and may with the rise of China become just as "relevant", but it will never be part of the mental furniture of this nation, something that every grounded citizen needs to know. That's why teaching children history should begin with facts, and only then start worrying about interpretation.

The same is true of literature, where again Michael Gove is often criticised for his insistence that children be taught the classics and even memorise poetry. What of creativity and imagination? Well, you can have creativity without a solid grounding in facts – most children are naturally expressive – but imagination needs materials to work with. The best creative writers, and even many "trashier" ones (such as the former Member for Corby) tend to have English degrees. Even those that don't are invariably wide and deep readers.

The techniques used to dissect and analyse literature are, as with history, transferable skills with which young people in the modern world need to be equipped. But, again as with history, studying great literature is valuable for its own sake as well. You can teach the same analytical techniques by studying King Lear or last night's episode of EastEnders. In the second case, you've learned to analyse a text. In the first case, you've learnt to analyse a text and you've read King Lear.

In yesterday's speech, Gove wondered allowed if most parents would rather their 17 year old daughter read Twilight or Middlemarch. It's a telling example; and it's not enough to reply that it's better to be turned on to reading by Stephanie Meyer's vampire saga than turned off by George Eliot. It wasn't Gove's point, exactly, but the message sent out to teenage girls by the Twilight is reactionary and dismal in the extreme: save yourself, act submissive and you too may end up with a drop-dead gorgeous immortal on your arm. Stay away from werewolves. Middlemarch, by contrast, though 150 years older, features a free-thinking, active and educated heroine. If we want our daughters to aspire, which provides the better role model?

Of course there's a powerful strain of nostalgia in Gove's vision, easily caricatured as a desire to return to the bad old days of rote-learning and corporal punishment. But his message is more forward-looking and aspirational than that. There's nothing right-wing, as such, about a firm grounding in basic grammar, however much insisting old-fashioned notions of right and wrong may displease sentimentalists like Michael Rosen. Education has always been the greatest engine of social progress and upward mobility, ever since the butcher's son Thomas Wolsey rose to become the chief minister of Henry VIII. Progressive notions of education in the state sector have given us a cabinet dominated by Old Etonians for the first time in fifty years. Gove, himself a scholarship boy, offers a way out: back to basics, perhaps, but also back to the future.

Yesterday Gove also imagined – gender stereotype alert – a parent seeing her teenage son hunched over a laptop. "You steal a look over his shoulder – and what would please you more – to see him playing Angry Birds, or coding?" Again, he has a point, though I wonder if mention of the addictive iPhone game might not be a subtle dig at David Cameron, who has admitted his own penchant for the kamikaze pig-smashers. It's not enough to reply that in either case the mother would no doubt be relieved that the boy wasn't staring at porn.

Earlier this year I was at a lecture in Cambridge given by Eric Schmidt of Google. Schmidt recalled the stir he caused at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 when he lamented the decline of computer science in schools in favour of an IT curriculum focused on learning to use software. This time he had a different message. "You have a hero in government," he declared, before outlining a new initiative to teach coding in schools. "His name is Michael Gove." The sentiment went down like the proverbial lead balloon with the predominantly academic audience. It may have been an exaggeration – only time will tell whether his reforms to the curriculum and to school organisation take root and yield fruit – but in a political arena largely devoid of obvious talent he is a star turn.

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.