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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.