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

Photo: Getty
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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear