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.

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Why Chris Grayling is Jeremy Corbyn's secret weapon

The housing crisis is Labour's best asset - and Chris Grayling is making it worse. 

It feels like the classic Conservative story: wait until the election is over, then cancel spending in areas that have the temerity to vote Labour. The electrification of rail routes from Cardiff to Swansea – scrapped. So too is the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester route – and of the Midland main line.

But Crossrail 2, which runs from north to south across London and deep into the capital's outer satellites, including that of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, will go ahead as planned.

It would be grim but effective politics if the Conservatives were pouring money into the seats they won or lost narrowly. There are 25 seats that the Conservatives can take with a swing of 1 per cent from Labour to Tory, and 30 seats that they would lose with a swing of 1 per cent from Tory to Labour.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Conservatives were making spending decisions with an eye on what you might call the frontline 55. But what they’re actually doing is taking money away from north-west marginal constituencies – and lavishing cash on increasingly Labour London. In doing that, they’re actually making their electoral headache worse.

How so? As I’ve written before, the biggest problem for the Conservatives in the long term is simply that not enough people are getting on the housing ladder. That is hurting them in two ways. The first is straightforward: economically-driven voters are not turning blue when they turn 30 because they are not either on or about to mount the first rungs of the housing ladder. More than half of 30-year-olds were mortgage-payers in 1992, when John Major won an unexpected Conservative majority, while under a third were in 2017, when Theresa May unexpectedly lost hers.

But it is also hurting them because culturally-driven voters are getting on the housing ladder, but by moving out of areas where Labour’s socially-concerned core vote congregates in great numbers, and into formerly safe or at least marginal Conservative seats. That effect has reached what might be its final, and for the Conservatives, deadly form in Brighton. All three of the Brighton constituencies – Hove, Brighton Kemptown and Brighton Pavilion – were Conservative-held in 1992. Now none of them are. In Pavilion they are third, and the smallest majority they have to overcome is 9,868, in Kemptown. The same effect helped reduce Amber Rudd’s majority in Hastings, also in East Sussex, to 346.

The bad news for the Conservatives is that the constituencies of Crawley, Reading, Swindon and in the longer-term, Bracknell, all look like Brightons in the making: although only Reading East fell to Labour this time, all saw swings bigger than the national average and all are seeing increasing migration by culturally-driven left-wing voters away from safe Labour seats. All are seeing what you might call “Hackneyfication”: commuters moving from inner city seats but taking their politics with them.

Add to that forced migration from inner London to seats like Iain Duncan Smith’s in Chingford – once a Conservative fortress, now a razor-thin marginal – and even before you add in the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s person and platform, the electoral picture for the Conservatives looks bleak.

(It should go without saying that voters are driven by both economics and culture. The binary I’ve used here is simplistic but helpful to understand the growing demographic pressures on the Conservatives.)

There is actually a solution here for the Tories. It’s both to build more housing but also to rebalance the British economy, because the housing crisis in London and the south is driven by the jobs and connectivity crisis in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Or, instead, they could have a number of measures designed to make London’s economy stride still further ahead of the rest, serviced by 5 per cent mortgages and growing numbers of commuter rail services to facilitate a growing volume of consumers from London’s satellite towns, all of which only increase the electoral pressures on their party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.