Gove is becoming a liability for the Tories

The Education Secretary's running battles with teachers and "the blob" do not endear him to voters.

For the third day running, the fallout from Michael Gove's decision to remove Labour peer and former Blair adviser Sally Morgan as the chair of Ofsted is leading the headlines. The Lib Dems are warning that they will veto any attempt by him to appoint Tory donor Theodore Agnew as her successor, Labour has written to Jeremy Heywood demanding an investigation, and former Ofsted chief inspector David Bell has warned Gove not to "believe his own hype" in a written rebuke

Few voters will trouble themselves with the details (how many know or care who leads Ofsted?) but the repeated criticisms of Gove from all sides will encourage the suspicion that the education system is being changed in undesirable ways - and that should trouble the Tories. While the Education Secretary is lauded by the commentariat and by Conservative activists, his approval rating among parents is less impressive. A YouGov poll last year found that 25 per cent of voters would be less likely to vote Tory if he became leader with just four per cent more likely.

And voters, contrary to Westminster perception, aren't keen on his policies either. Another YouGov poll, for the Times, showed that just 27 per cent support free schools with 47 per cent opposed. In addition, 66 cent share Labour and the Lib Dems' belief that the schools should only be able to employ qualified teachers and 56 per cent believe the national curriculum should be compulsory. For these reasons, among others, Labour has consistently led the Tories (see p. 8) on education since the end of 2010, with a five point advantage at present. 

Worse, just 12 per cent of teachers (at far from insignificant voting group) would vote Conservative, compared to 43 per cent for Labour and 6 per cent for the Lib Dems. Evidence of why was supplied elsewhere in the poll, which found that 79  per cent believe that the government's impact on the education system has been negative, and that 82 per cent of teachers and 87 per cent of school leaders are opposed to the coalition's expansion of academies and free schools. In addition, 74 per cent said that their morale had declined since the election and 70 per cent of head teachers did not feel trusted by ministers to get on with their jobs. Finally, 91 per cent of teachers opposed publicly-funded schools being run for profit (a policy Gove has said he would consider introducing under a Conservative majority government) and 93 per cent believed academies and free schools should only employ teachers with Qualified Teacher Status.

Those who believe that the Tories derive a political dividend from Gove's clashes with "the blob" (the name he and his ideological allies use for the educational establishment after the 1958 horror film) forget that voters are far more likely to trust teachers than they are politicians. A poll by Ipsos MORI last year found that 86 per cent of voters trust teachers compared to just 18 per cent for politicians (but 41 per cent for trade union officials). 

As David Bell writes in his piece today, "Don’t believe your own hype. Whitehall has a habit of isolating ministers. The day-to-day grind of policy battles, firefighting and political ding-dong can start to cut you off from outside ideas and thinking. The row over Ofsted's shows the importance of retaining, and being seen to retain, independent voices near the top – not simply 'yes men'. The danger is that while The Blob is a useful political tool in the short-term, it simply might not be as deep-rooted as the education secretary believes."

Gove has an important message to deliver today on breaking down "the Berlin Wall" between state and private schools (the subject of this week's NS cover story by David and George Kynaston). But his permanent kulturkampf with teachers means that, on this issue and much else, he is danger of no drowning his own words out. 

Education Secretary Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder