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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.