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.