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.