The Tories have done their best today to gloss over the Whitehall war between Michael Gove and Theresa May, which so overshadowed the Queen's Speech. As he left home this morning, Gove said: "Theresa May is doing a fantastic job. There's a lot going on...She's doing a very fine job." Chris Grayling told the Today programmme: "Tensions and debates within Whitehall are not unusual; the fact is that we are pussycats in comparison with the last government if you remember the battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown."
But the truth is that the multi-layered feud has been one of the most damaging since the formation of the coalition. A day after it was leaked, May's abrasive letter to Gove (which now appears to have been taken off the government's website) on his alleged failure to prevent the infilitration of Birmingham schools by Islamist extremists still makes remarkable reading. In the manner of a shadow secretary of state, she demanded of the Education Secretary: "How did it come to pass, for example, that one of the governors at Park View was the chairman of the education committee of the Muslim Council of Britain? Is it true that Birmingham city council was warned about these allegations in 2008? Is it true that the Department for Education was warned in 2010? If so, why did nobody act? I am aware that several investigations are still ongoing and those investigations are yet to conclude. But it is clear to me that we will need to take clear action to improve the quality of staffing and governance if we are to prevent extremism in schools."
And after an Ofsted investigation into one of the schools involved in the affair was leaked, it is the Home Secretary who has taken round one. The report, one of 21 due to be published next week, found that too little had been done to protect pupils at Golden Hillock School in Sparkhill from "the risks associated with extremist views". It concluded that leaders and governors were "not doing enough to mitigate against cultural isolation" and that this "could leave students vulnerable to the risk of marginalisation from wider British society and the associated risks which could include radicalisation." It also warns that "Sex and relationships education has not been delivered through a carefully planned curriculum."
Labour, unsurprisingly, has brandished the report as the political gift that it is. Tristram Hunt said in response:
Gender discrimination, undue influence of extremist views, the school curriculum influenced by hard-line beliefs. This report confirms that Michael Gove can no longer seek to distance himself from this episode. He is responsible.
In 2010, Michael Gove was warned by a highly respected Birmingham head teacher that this was going on. Four years on, he has failed to act and has not explained why. Rightly, his record is now being called into question. Rather than rowing with Theresa May, he needs to answer why he has refused to act.
The Tory education programme has created a vacuum in the local oversight of schools which Labour has warned about for years. It is inconceivable that ministers can oversee half of our country’s secondary schools from a desk in Whitehall. Labour will introduce local Directors of School Standards to oversee all schools and end this exposure to risk that is damaging school standards.
For years, Labour has found itself on the backfoot on education as Gove has defined the terms of debate and claimed political ownership of the academies programme. But the lack of oversight revealed by this episode and others, such as the Al-Madinah case, means that the tide has finally turned in its favour. It will now be harder than ever for Gove to justify his belief that it is possible to run an education system on the basis that thousands of schools should be directly accountable to the Secretary of State.