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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.