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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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.