Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Gove has won his biggest battles. Now he only harms himself by refusing to accept victory

Should Labour make it into government, the schools revolution will be modified, not reversed.

Disputes in the coalition come in two degrees. There are control­led explosions over policy. And then there are the cases that involve Michael Gove.

The Education Secretary and the Liberal Democrat leadership disagree less than recent hostile leaks and briefings suggest. Both sides believe the acceleration of Labour’s academies programme and the introduction of free schools are liberating creative head teachers, giving parents more choice and driving up standards. This shared conviction was once a cornerstone of coalition unity.

The central difference in doctrine to have emerged is that Nick Clegg refuses to countenance the idea that new school providers should be allowed to operate for profit – a step Gove has always seen as a plausible incentive to attract enterprising sponsors. Allies of the Deputy PM want this distinction to be considered a “red line” with moderate, public-spirited Lib Dems on one side and market-fundamentalist Tories on the other.

Gove’s friends attribute Clegg’s dawdling on the road to reform to panic about his party’s wretched performance in the opinion polls. Academies and free schools disempower local authorities, where Lib Dems once flourished. Allies of the Education Secretary depict Clegg in a pathetic campaign to shore up a crumbling electoral base. One former adviser mimics the Lib Dem leader: “I’ve lost the students, the anti-war left, the civil liberties crowd,” he whines. “Please let me keep the teachers.” The Govite pastiche has Clegg indiscriminately meddling in education policy, squandering money on cosmetic initiatives – free meals for all primary school children, for example – that he imagines will rehabilitate his image.

That charge infuriates the Lib Dems, especially the bit about wasting cash. The retaliation is to accuse Gove of writing blank cheques for empty free schools while ignoring overcrowding elsewhere. Recent reports that £400m had been diverted from a fund guaranteeing additional school places and used instead to bail out Gove’s pet project were part of a Lib Dem counteroffensive to depict the Education Secretary as a fiscal hypocrite. “They need to know that you can’t start throwing false accusations around without being held to the same standard of transparency,” says a Clegg aide. (Also stoking Lib Dem rage is the conviction that Gove was behind the recent leak of Clegg’s opposition to tougher sentences for knife crime.)

The Deputy Prime Minister’s allies portray Gove as a victim of his own zeal; a fanatic who might have stood triumphant at the head of a cross-party coalition of education reformers but whose constant fear of sabotage has alienated supporters. It is true that Gove’s tent was once bigger. There was a time when Labour’s academy enthusiasts were discreetly relieved that the coalition was continuing Tony Blair’s work and dismayed that Ed Miliband was not competing for ownership of a good policy. Teachers were not always so hostile. The offer of gleaming new classrooms with a whiff of public-school ethos but no fees attached was a potential winner with parents.

But, say the Lib Dems, Gove is consumed by dread that his work will be undone by a left-wing establishment that prefers uniform mediocrity to the pursuit of excellence – “the Blob”, as he calls it. This intransigence treats rising hostility as a measure of success. One Lib Dem strategist summarises it as the view that: “If you are creating enemies, you must be doing something right.”

Gove has a loyal fan base among Tory MPs and journalists who celebrate his crusading vigour as a model for thwarting bureaucracy. Meanwhile, his extreme unpopularity beyond Westminster has registered on No 10’s radar. One Tory insider describes Downing Street as “increasingly worried about Michael”. Labour strategists boast that the best way to elicit hostile reactions to Cameron and George Osborne is to picture them with the Education Secretary.

Coalition feuding over education is a mixed blessing for Labour. It distracts attention from the opposition message but, then again, where school reform is concerned the message is not designed for billboard amplification. The position, set out in a policy review by the former education secretary David Blunkett, is a combination of acquiescence and amendment to Gove’s agenda. Labour would bring academies and free schools under the purview of new “directors of school standards”. That office would commission new schools without prejudice for or against local authorities alongside other providers. This, it is argued, would end the “chaotic” system under which maverick newcomers are accountable only to the secretary of state, who has neither the will nor the capacity to highlight their failings. Privately, some senior Lib Dems say that sounds like a sensible innovation.

The compromise also has advantages for internal Labour Party management, smuggling acceptance that local authorities will not have their old powers restored underneath headlines to the effect that the advancing forces of Govism will be halted. In reality, should Labour make it into government, the schools revolution will be modified, not reversed. That won’t be enough for large sections of the party and cries of betrayal will surely come. Yet for the time being Miliband is protected by public animosity to the Education Secretary. As long as the policy can be dressed in anti-Gove slogans, the activists are on board. Gove plays along by insisting on ever greater leaps forward, smelling counter-revolution in every compromise. If he could see how little of his legacy is under threat from Labour or Lib Dem policy, he would embrace the fellow-travellers in other parties, which is the last thing they want. It is lucky for them that he cannot.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.