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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.