Michael Gove is loathed by the public, something the media - that loves him - forgets. Photo: Getty
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Michael Gove: loved by the media, loathed by the public

The former Education Secretary is a brilliant media performer, has great contacts in the press – but public opinion meant he had to be reshuffled.

Michael Gove has this morning been reshuffled from Education Secretary to Chief Whip, in what is a surprise demotion for a prominent, controversial and outspoken cabinet minister from David Cameron's government.

This move has caused such tremors among journalists, media commentators and politicos alike because Gove is a darling of the media. He is a smooth performer, both during broadcast interviews and at the despatch box, and is given to using florid, inventive language to ensure his soundbites really do bite. An example is his use of “the Blob” to condemn the educational establishment sceptical of his initiatives, a term being resurrected today by those lamenting his departure.

As a former journalist at the Times, Gove also has good contacts in both the Murdoch press and other papers, knows how the game works, and often finds rightwing political commentators singing his praises.

However, this love for the former Education Secretary from the Westminster village people disguises why he really had to go in today’s reshuffle. He is loathed by the public. Just compare it to the Labour frontbench. Aside from Ed Miliband, there is no one the public can point at just by recognition, let alone visceral reaction. Whereas Gove is a known figure, and one who is often seen as a political villain – and not just by teachers and the unions. By ordinary people who see his attitude towards education as damaging and arrogant. Everyone’s had an education to some extent, so everyone to some extent has an opinion on such an equally opinionated Education Secretary.

Take the results of some recent exclusive polling for BuzzFeed on the most disliked politicians of each party. It revealed that the other main parties’ best tactic and easiest win is to knock Michael Gove. He was found to be the most-hated Conservative politician among the general public, more disliked than the other two more public Tory faces, David Cameron and George Osborne. This is unusual, as usually it’s the most prominent politicians who garner the strongest reactions from the electorate. He is also by far the least popular Tory politician among Lib Dem voters, way outstripping figures such as the PM and Iain Duncan Smith.

Therefore it goes to follow that attacking Gove has been a useful tactic for the Labour party. As the New Statesman’s previous political editor Rafael Behr pointed out in a recent column: “Labour strategists boast that the best way to elicit hostile reactions to Cameron and George Osborne is to picture them with the Education Secretary.”

It’s clear Labour isn’t going to reverse wholesale Michael Gove’s school reforms, preferring to follow a route of tweaking and compromising on the extended academies programme and free schools. These reforms aren’t popular among the public, so it has been easier for Labour to attack Gove as a character, rather than pick apart policies it would be unlikely to do away with completely were it to reach government. As Behr argues in the same column: “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”.

So in an ironic conclusion of reshuffle mania, it looks like the public will on the whole be thrilled at this particular demotion of an influential Tory ideologue, but the Labour party may be less pleased at the departure of its pet political punchbag.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.