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The dying of the middle-class dream

Millions of households have suffered a fall in living standards in these past few years. So when the politicians are seen to collude in what feels like a rip-off . . .

All of British politics since the end of the Second World War has been underpinned by a double promise. The first element is collective – every generation will live better than the one before it. The second component is individual – any citizen’s hard work will be rewarded with wealth and higher social status.

In the US, the equivalent offer is explicit in the idea of an “American dream”. In Britain, we are more reticent about expressing the belief that self-advancement should be a fundamental right and more pessimistic about whether it extends to us. That doesn’t mean the idea lacks currency, nor does it diminish the feeling of betrayal when the contract is broken.

It is breaking before our eyes. The financial crisis did not only disrupt the longest run of economic growth in living memory; it upset assumptions about who the economy was designed to serve. The perception that a super-wealthy elite was both responsible for the crash and insulated from its consequences is profoundly demoralising. It mocks the ambition of those who feel they are working harder than ever for diminishing returns.

For millions of British households the experience of the past few years has been creeping impoverishment. Wages have been frozen or have risen too slowly to keep up with the cost of living. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, the average weekly pay packet has fallen by about 8 per cent in real terms since the start of 2008 – the peak of the boom. In the same period, while GDP per head has contracted by 7 per cent, net national income per head has fallen by 13.2 per cent.

According to a recent study by researchers at Loughborough University, the cost of a basket of essential goods and services – including food, fuel and public transport – has risen by 43 per cent in the past decade. The average domestic energy bill has roughly doubled in real terms over the same period. For many, those pressures have cancelled out material gains accrued since the turn of the century. Necessary components of family life – childcare, running a car – have become punishingly expensive for anyone living on or below the median household income, currently about £26,500 per year.

Then there is the slow burn of Britain’s housing crisis. Surveys of mortgage lenders show the average age of a first-time buyer is now 35, up from 28 in the 2000s and 24 in the 1960s. The only reason hundreds of thousands of people who already own their property are able to stay in it is that interest rates are below the long-term trend. A sudden rise could tip them into arrears. Rents are inflating in the private sector, much of which is a wild west of cowboy landlords charging extortionate rates for hovels. As for social housing, in densely populated parts, anyone not destitute enough to qualify for emergency short-term accommodation can expect to sit on a waiting list for up to ten years.

Unemployment has not soared as much as many feared in the recession, but the official numbers are buoyed by increases in part-time work and by people declaring themselves self-employed, categories that conceal meagre incomes. Roughly 1.4 million people are forced to work fewer hours than they would like. There are still about 2.5 million people jobless. Youth unemployment is hovering just below the one million mark. A mass of research shows that future earnings and self-esteem will be dented irreversibly for those young people passing their formative years in a hopeless drift.

A YouGov survey conducted last month asked voters how worried they were that “people like you will not have enough money to live comfortably” over the next two to three years. Seventy-one per cent were fairly or very worried; 28 per cent were not worried. When asked about the fear of losing their job or finding work 64 per cent said they were worried and 32 per cent were not. Those proportions were broadly the same across social categories, political allegiance, age and region.

The fall in British prosperity and optimism is not just a function of the financial crisis and recession; nor will it necessarily be reversed as economic growth returns. Wages for those in the bottom half of the income scale have been stagnant since 2003. Research by the Resolution Foundation, the leading think tank looking at trends in living standards, has found that disposable incomes for low earners fell in every region of England outside London during the period 2003-2008 – the frothiest part of the boom, when the British economy as a whole expanded by 11 per cent.


Even in the good times, people were not as well off as they thought they were – or felt entitled to be. The state compensated for some of the shortfall with tax credits. Those are now being cut. Individuals also topped up their wages with credit cards and other private debts. That habit persists. A study by the consumer group Which? found that, this past September alone, 800,000 households took out emergency “payday loans”, often carrying extortionate interest rates. Last year,, a leading provider of such loans, more than trebled its profits on the previous year, up from £12.4m to £45.8m.

According to the Resolution Foundation’s analysis, even when heroic assumptions are made about a prompt bounce back to growth and rising employment, the benefits will accrue to those who, by any objective measure, are already rich. “There is a complacent view that a return to growth will be enough. That is unlikely to be the case,” says Gavin Kelly, the foundation’s director. “We know from recent history in the UK, and far longer experiences in other mature economies, that it is perfectly possible for steady growth to coincide with an era of stagnant living standards.”

This opens a new chapter in British politics. For the first time, swaths of middle-class voters, who for generations were given to understand that the system was fashioned for their benefit, feel it is rigged against them. In such a climate, the conventional messages – the appeal to aspiration and the promise to reward enterprise – ring hollow. Yet the current generation of party leaders doesn’t know any other kind of middle-class politics.

The American experience is instructive, although never wholly analogous. The US middle class has followed the same pattern of stagnant wages, shrinking opportunity and squeezed living standards but for even longer. The “Death of the Great American Middle Class” is a well-established trope in the US media, debated in newspaper op-ed pages and dissected by political scientists.

A new book by James Carville and Stan Green­berg, two veterans of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, charts the phenomenon in depth. It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! argues that the mechanisms for delivering the American dream to the average citizen – access to quality education, affordable housing, jobs that pay decent wages – have broken down.

“There’s a presumption that you will do better and better, have more disposable income and more savings, and you’ll have a decent retirement, that your kids will get a college education and be able to do better than you,” says Greenberg. “If you look at the period 1945-80, that’s what happened in America. We now know, looking back from 1980 onwards, that it largely stopped – the story is now a myth.”

I met Greenberg, a pollster and strategist who is currently advising the Labour Party, on a recent trip of his to London. We sat in a central London coffee shop discussing the parallels between the American and British predicaments. One vital distinction, he observes, is that the “middle class” in the United States is a much broader category. Those who aspire to the status automatically expect to acquire it and so pre-emptively identify themselves with it. “In the US, working-class people who are clearly not middle class by the standards we’re talking about here [in Britain] consider themselves middle class, and they do so because they believe they will have rising incomes.”

When that expectation is disappointed the result is rage. It shows itself in the banners held aloft at this year’s Democratic National Convention saying “Middle Class First” (a slogan that would invite satirical sneers about easier access to organic vegetables in the UK). It is also a force driving the rise of the radical conservative Tea Party movement. Although the Republican fringe is better known in Britain for its Christian fundamentalism, it channels a sense of betrayal at the hollowing out of the American dream – the feeling that the Washington and Wall Street elite have stolen the country from the people.

As Greenberg sees it, the common belief is that America is “hard-wired” to furnish opportunity, so if it doesn’t happen, some conspiracy is to blame. “So we end up with a morality tale – who are the bad guys that are blocking the natural forces? It’s class conflict in the context of an assumption that we just need to take away the distortions that rig the rules.”

The suspicion that government is a malign influence is then inflamed by ultra-conservative media, weaving in reactionary religious fear that liberal policy degrades the moral fibre of the nation. Greenberg’s analysis is supported by Jacob S Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale University and an important intellectual influence among those in Ed Miliband’s inner circle. “The hallmark of contemporary public attitudes,” Hacker wrote in a recent paper, “is not public conservatism but public cynicism and distrust, fuelled by the economic trend of the last generation and a sense that government is out of touch.”

That, he argues, poses a particular challenge to politicians of the left, who must decontaminate state intervention of any kind before voters can trust them again to address structural imbalances and entrenched injustices in the economy. “To rebuild the middle class requires rebuilding a sense that government can make a positive difference.”

Thus, in the US at least, the mainstream politics of class resentment, historically imagined to be a resource of the left, has been appropriated by the anti-government right. A significant observation in It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! is that the raw evidence from opinion polls shows Democratic candidates do surprisingly well when they become unapologetic in demanding that wealth be shared more equitably. Yet they are often intimidated out of pressing the point home by a received wisdom – and a well-mobilised conservative commentariat – which says that such messages are divisive, signal a drift away from the centre, represent “class war” and alienate independent voters with a whiff of socialism.

A similar dynamic operates in Britain, though much moderated because we are less hysterical about the spectre of reds under the bed. The charge of sowing interclass strife is central to Tory rebuttals of Ed Miliband’s attempt, laid out in his speech to this year’s Labour conference in Manchester, to position himself as the leader of a “one-nation” party. Conservatives leapt on Miliband’s scorn for David Cameron’s quasi-aristocratic background, Eton education and cabinet staffed with millionaires as evidence that the call for national unity disguised a return to embittered socialism. Cameron addressed the point directly in his own autumn conference speech. “We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war,” he said. “We just get behind people who want to get on in life.” In parliamentary debate, Cameron routinely uses “left-wing” as a term of derision and a byword for unelectable incomprehension of mainstream British sensibilities.

Downing Street is under no illusions that politics for the foreseeable future will be shaped by the feeling in many households that the ground is giving way beneath their feet. Senior Tories also know that they will not long get away with blaming the nation’s misfortune on the legacy of the last government. “Answering the question ‘What are you going to do about this?’ will be the dominant theme in politics for the next 30 years,” says a No 10 strategist.

Cameron’s strategy for re-election rests on the hope of reviving his party’s appeal to those lower-middle-class and working-class voters who once flocked to Margaret Thatcher’s banner. They are often identified in the Conservative lexicon as the “strivers” – driven by the will to work their way up and deeply resentful of those perceived to be gaming the system, especially through “unearned” welfare payments.

The historically emblematic policy for winning the support of these voters was the “right to buy” council houses, which held out a mass invitation of enhanced status and asset wealth through property ownership. It is far from obvious what an equivalent offer today would look like. Besides, Thatcher, the daughter of a greengrocer, was intrinsically plausible as a champion of that target demographic. David Cameron is not.


One Conservative who is sensitive to the needs of the “strivers” is Robert Halfon, the respected MP for Harlow in Essex. It is a bellwether seat, taken from Labour in the Thatcher landslide of 1983, reclaimed in the Blair stampede of 1997 and then surrendered again in 2010. Halfon has made a name for himself in parliament campaigning vigorously and with some success against rises in petrol duties, which, he says, are pummelling what he calls the “white van” voter. “The next election will be about the cost of living,” he tells me. “People in my constituency are getting up at 5am to drive to work. They are holding down two jobs. People are suffering but they still want to get on.”

Halfon doesn’t believe that the British middle class is responsive to political attacks based on the Prime Minister’s privileged family history, arguing that they see in these stories a sneer of envy. But he recognises that the Tories in general are in danger of looking as if they stand up for the wrong people. “Not one person on the doorstep has ever commented on Cameron’s background or [his education at] Eton,” Halfon says. “What people do care about, what is a large problem for us, is that we are seen as a party of the rich. Even people who agree with us and are inclined to vote for us are hesitant about it because they wonder if we are governing for the benefit of our rich friends.”

The distinction is vital. It is unreasonable to blame Cameron for the circumstances of his birth; it is fair to challenge him over the choices he makes in power. Labour has been stung in the past trying to depict Tories as cartoon toffs. In the 2008 by-election in Crewe and Nantwich, the Conservative candidate, Edward Timpson, a Cheshire barrister from a wealthy family, was trailed by Labour activists wearing “Lord Snooty” top hats and tails. The stunt backfired when the background of the Labour candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody, was shown to be no more proletarian. The seat was lost.

Since then the climate has changed. The imposition of painful economic policy has coincided with the appearance of a prime minister who is obviously unfamiliar with toil. Even many Tories admit to irritation with their leader’s haughty manner and encirclement by a gilded clique.

Stan Greenberg, who has a detailed knowledge of opinion-poll trends, believes the Prime Minister’s personal brand has been compromised by the impression that he moves in rarefied circles, is distant from the concerns of ordinary people and fails to put their interests first. The turning point was the phone-hacking scandal, which exposed Cameron’s seamless social integration with executives from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in a kind of rolling beau monde Cotswolds garden party.

“His identity is so fuelled by who he was hanging out with during that crisis – the horseback riding [with the News International executive Rebekah Brooks], the whole set of associations, Murdoch’s back-door entry to No 10. It resonated,” Greenberg says. “He’s part of the horsey set. He’s seen to be a typical Conservative who makes choices on policy, including cutting taxes for wealthy people, while also doing a granny tax. Combine that with who he was hanging out with, and things have come together in a way that is pretty indelible.”

The resignation last month of the Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell over allegations that he told police officers to “know their place” and called them “plebs” can hardly help redeem the party’s snobbish image. Downing Street claims the episode has caused much more of a stir in Westminster than anywhere else – that it has not “cut through” to a wider audience. It is hard to find an MP from any party who believes that.

While Cameron might struggle to reassure anxious voters that he is on their side, it is not obvious that Ed Miliband will be embraced as their more authentic champion. The opposition leader’s background is rarefied, too, only in a different way. He may have gone to the local comprehensive but his cultural schooling and political apprenticeship, in the north London intelligentsia and as a young adviser to Gordon Brown, respectively, do not resemble anything like the experience of the voters he wants to woo. For most people who take little interest in what happens at Westminster, he is another well-spoken, Oxford-educated politician who has never struggled to pay the rent.

To his credit, Miliband was the first party leader to identify what he characterised as the struggles of the “squeezed middle” – the long-term, downward pressure on living standards for people on or below average incomes. He has spoken about restoring what he calls “the promise of Britain”, a deliberate emulation of “the American dream”. The phrase has not caught on.

The focus on US trends is still the right one. It isn’t just the way real incomes have fallen while growth has risen. The UK is following an American labour-market pattern in which the kinds of jobs that pay well enough to sustain a high standard of living are becoming rarer – even as overall unemployment is falling. It has been called the “hourglass effect”. In other words, there is pool of poorly paid, low-skilled jobs at the bottom, a bulge of well-paid, high-end jobs at the top and a dwindling number of semi-skilled, white-collar, clerical or managerial posts in the middle. Those are the jobs that underpin mass participation in the middle class, as a lifestyle and an identity.

In another recent book charting the decline of the US middle class, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, the author, the Financial Times journalist Edward Luce, quotes Lawrence Katz of Harvard University, one of America’s leading labour economists, on the social consequences of polarisation between luxuriant and servile wages: “We are on track to becoming a country where the top tier remains wealthy beyond imagination, and the remainder, in one way or another, are working in jobs that help make the lives of the elites more comfortable . . . They will be taking care of them in old age, fixing their home wifi, or their air-conditioning, teaching or helping with their kids and serving them their food.”


It is conceivable that Britain will end up in a similar place. Politics in the aftermath of the financial crisis is unlike the recovery phase from previous recessions. In the past it was easy to imagine that the country was experiencing a period of temporary turbulence. Politicians just needed to advertise their credentials to navigate through it. This time is different for two reasons. First, restoring growth alone does not solve the structural flaws that disconnect the middle class from realistic attainment of its members’ ambitions. Second, the very capacity of politics to provide solutions is in question. None of the present generation of party leaders has any experience of governing at a time when the entire economic system is perceived to be a con. They all hail from a political elite that is seen as having devised the scam or, at best, colluded in it.

Hacker has identified a paradox that applies as well to the British challenge as the American one: “Progressive reform will require using a broken political system to fix a broken political system,” he writes. “The main obstacle to change and the main vehicle for change are one and the same.”

For generations, much of the British electorate has not been highly politicised. Suspicion of ideology and wariness of campaigning exuberance are features of genteel, middle-class identity. The most successful election candidates in recent decades have been those who persuaded middle-class voters – or those who aspire to be middle class – that backing their party is the predictable, respectable thing to do. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair achieved a cultural monopoly over the non-political mainstream. They made voting for the opposition look somehow more conspicuously opinionated, a tilt towards the fringe, and therefore socially almost eccentric.

There is no candidate in British politics who can pull off that trick today. The financial crisis has ended the idea that the pursuit of a comfortable family life – “normal”, middle-class aspiration – can be automatic and politically neutral, as if decoupled from ideological choice. Already too much of a struggle for that to be the case, it is likely to become more of one and, by extension, increasingly politicised.

But how, and by whom? Not in recent memory have we seen politics in this country with a middle class radicalised by the brazen theft of its future. We may be about to find out what that looks like.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove, the polite assassin

The Messianic restlessness of the justice secretary.

Michael Gove is the politest man in politics and one of the most abrasive, a charmer who cultivates enemies. He is pious, loyal and incurably irreverent. He is a gifted communicator who is widely misunderstood, an accomplished operator who repeatedly makes basic errors, and a right-wing ideologue with a fierce aversion to unearned privilege. He is a Conservative. He is a radical.

His party isn’t sure if he is an asset or a ­liability. One day in November 2013, when Gove was in the fourth year of his tenure as secretary of state for education, he received a visitor from Downing Street. Lynton Crosby, the Prime Minister’s chief political strategist, took Gove through a PowerPoint presentation, outlining his strategy for a Conservative victory in the upcoming general election, then 18 months away.

Crosby brought gratifying news. In most countries, he said, education was the preserve of parties of the left. But Crosby’s polling data indicated that in the UK, Gove had succeeded in putting this territory up for grabs. Crosby was inclined to seize it. It fitted the larger story that the Tories wanted to tell: opportunities for all, rewards for hard work, success in the global economic race. Gove and his advisers were delighted.

Eight months later, the Prime Minister met with Gove to tell him that he was relieving him of his duties at Education. It came as a painful shock. Gove wasn’t ready to leave, and his demotion to the post of chief whip – a job for which he had little appetite – involved the loss of a full cabinet seat. As if that weren’t enough, he was being sacked by one of his oldest and closest friends in politics, a man to whom he had given much, and of whom he had asked little. He did not, however, as Iain Duncan Smith had done more than once, threaten to resign. He was too loyal for that, as Cameron must have calculated.

The next day, Gove’s injury was spiked with insult. The Sunday papers, briefed by Cameron’s office on the reshuffle, led with Gove’s dismissal. All of them used the same word. It was said that the Prime Minister had concluded, on Crosby’s advice, that his education secretary was “toxic”, hated by teachers, who talk to parents, who vote in large numbers. Gove stayed loyal in public, even as his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, tweeted rather ominously about “a shabby day’s work which Cameron will live to regret”.

After the election was won, Gove’s status and pride were at least partly restored when he was awarded a new job: Secretary of State for Justice (and Lord Chancellor). One of the most intriguing questions of the new government is what he will decide to do with it. That is not a question you ask of every minister – you can’t imagine asking it of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, in any job, ever. But Gove is an inveterate reformer, driven by a desire to change the world, rather than simply manage it: as a friend and former colleague at the Department for Education told me, with feeling, “The thing about Michael is that he wants to do things – to change things because he believes in them.” As a personality, he stands out in the rather bland world of Westminster, a parakeet among pigeons. Someone who has worked closely with all the key players in this government calls him “the most interesting man in politics”.

Gove has kept a low profile, for him, since his appointment to Justice (he declined to be interviewed for this article). But the early signs are that he wants to do things again. He has been tasked with the government’s law reforms, and with extracting Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. Both moves will be resisted by lawyers. If he takes on the legal establishment as he took on the education establishment, he may have the biggest fight of his political career. Lawyers are closer than teachers to the levers of political power, and advocates are usually pretty good at advocating. The Gove brand might become retoxified by combat. But if he doesn’t take that risk, will he still be able to do big things?

This leads us to a fundamental question about reform. In April, three weeks before the general election, I attended a lunch organised by the New Statesman at which the principal guest was Tristram Hunt, then the shadow education secretary. In those days, believe it or not, it seemed likely that we were meeting the next education secretary. Hunt spoke to the assembled guests and then took questions.

When he had finished, I turned to the guest next to me, a former civil servant at the DfE who now worked for an exam board. I wondered aloud how Hunt would get on in government. “Oh, he’ll be utterly useless,” my neighbour replied. He explained that the world of education consists of a series of staunchly opposed and deeply entrenched interests. Hunt, he said, seemed to assume that everyone would be eager to work with him to improve schools. But it wasn’t like that.

If you are a politician who wants to make big changes to the way a public service runs, do you need to pick sides, and choose enemies, or can you do it through consensus and conciliation? Perhaps the answer depends on character as much as political ­philosophy. Radicalism in government isn’t so much a creed, as a temperament, one that thrills in putting principle over compromise, and is drawn irresistibly to the theatre of battle.

Another of Gove’s friends told me, “Michael is an idealist – a dangerous character.”


Among those on the left, at least, Michael Gove was the coalition government’s chief hate figure, beating David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, or George Osborne. This is, when you think about it, a little odd. For one thing, Gove wasn’t the one shrinking the state or cutting benefits; indeed, he successfully defended Education from the worst of the cuts. For another, his Toryism comes with a vivid streak of red (though perhaps that explains it). Among those who have known or engaged with Gove, it is said, even by adversaries, that he is animated by concern for the poor. Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the teachers’ union, who is an otherwise unsparing critic, told me: “He wants a more equal society. He truly believes in education as a vehicle for social justice.”

Gove’s background is not that of a typical Tory, and is certainly different from that of his friends Osborne and Cameron. He was born in Edinburgh in 1967, and his biological mother gave him away when he was still an infant. He was adopted at four months by a couple from Aberdeen who proved to be loving parents. (His mother used to tell him, “You didn’t grow under my heart, you grew in it.”) His father, Ernest, ran a small business, inherited from his own father, processing the cod and whiting that came in from the trawlers every morning. Some of Gove’s earliest memories are of watching his father skin, gut and smoke fish (he hated the smell). Gove’s mother, Christine, was a lab assistant at Aberdeen University. Together with his younger sister, Angela, also
adopted, he was raised in a three-bedroom semi. The family attended Church of Scotland services and he remains an avid believer: his moral world-view, and his rhetoric, are strongly coloured by Christian scripture (his advisers wincingly insist that his decision, as education secretary, to send a signed Bible to every school was a personal one).

His parents were eager that their bright young son should move up in life, and when, aged 11, he passed the entrance exam for the most prestigious private school in Aberdeen, Robert Gordon’s College, they stretched the pennies to pay the fees. Their son has never stopped thanking them for it. Gove adored Robert Gordon’s. In a sense, he was born there. The vividly drawn persona we are familiar with today emerged, fully formed, at school, in an act of audacious self-invention. The young Gove sought not merely to fit in with his socially superior peers, but to stand out from them. He rode an old-fashioned bicycle to school, wore suits, recited poetry and starred in debates.

Unusually confident, he excelled at most things, except sport. He was known for asking challenging questions of his teachers in a way that threatened to overturn the classroom hierarchy. Speaking to the Times in 2014, a former teacher recalled, “At the start of every lesson a hand would go up and it would be Michael. The thought would go through my mind, ‘What is he going to ask me now and will I know the answer?’” He was admired by classmates for his cheeky rejoinders to teachers, for which he occasionally received beatings with a leather belt, and was generally thought of as a good egg. A former classmate told the Guardian, “I had glasses and red hair, and I vividly remember being bullied in the changing room, and Michael tried to stop it.”

The Gove family fell on hard times after Ernest’s business was affected by diminishing fish stocks and new EU regulations. Christine, who had left her job to look after the children, returned to work as a classroom assistant at Aberdeen School for the Deaf, where Angela, severely deaf, was a pupil. The fees for Robert Gordon’s were no longer affordable but the school awarded Gove a scholarship. He must have felt ­heroic: his brilliance had saved the family from humiliation.

Precocious children often grow into adults with something of the child about them, and there is something eternally schoolboyish about Gove. The reflected admiration of his parents, teachers and classmates still radiates from his smooth-cheeked face. There remains also something of the outsider, who can’t resist sly jabs at insiders. Soon after becoming education secretary, he railed against a system in which “rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children”. He was probably surrounded by a few of the former in Robert Gordon’s, not to mention the Tory party.

He studied English at Oxford, where he was an active member of the Conservative Association, and was elected president of the Oxford Union. After graduation, he failed an interview with the Conservative Research Department because he was – at least as he tells it – “insufficiently political” and “insufficiently Conservative”. He returned to Scotland, landing his first job in journalism at the Aberdeen Press and Journal. On moving to London, he worked in television, including a stint as a presenter, before joining the Times, where he met ­Sarah Vine, with whom he has two young children: William, ten, and Beatrice, 12.

Gove started as a reporter, before becoming a leader writer and columnist. In print, the well-mannered, self-ironising young fellow was transformed into a Churchillian warrior. A self-proclaimed neoconservative, he was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war and an implacable foe of Islamic terrorism, about which he wrote a book, Celsius 7/7 (this was his second book; the first was Michael Portillo: the Future of the Right). His columns were stylish, if shallow, displaying a debater’s grasp of foreign policy, in which abstract nouns such as freedom, appeasement and resolve carried all before them.

In 2002, Gove co-founded the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, which became a hub for ambitious and metropolitan young Tories. He made friends with Cameron, Osborne and Steve Hilton (Cameron’s former director of strategy), who were impressed by his fluent articulation of political ideas. Cameron, a rising star of the Tory benches, persuaded his friend to leave journalism for politics, and in the May 2005 general election he was elected MP for Surrey Heath.

In 2007, when Cameron had been leader of the party for two years, his shadow education secretary David Willetts was bold enough to point out that grammar schools are not engines of social mobility. The Tory grass roots, never entirely comfortable with their leader’s modernisation project, revolted. Cameron sacked Willetts and asked Gove to fill the vacancy. He did so with alacrity. It wasn’t just the promotion: here was a brief into which he could pour himself.

Gove’s friends always refer you to his childhood to explain his motivation in politics. It is said, not least by himself, that he carries with him an acute awareness of his own good fortune. What if he hadn’t escaped the (presumed) poverty of his birth mother? What if his adoptive parents hadn’t cared so much about education? What if he hadn’t got a scholarship? He wants others, less lucky than he was, to have the same life chances, and believes education is a bridge out of poverty, into the freedoms enjoyed by elites. (In a speech at Brighton College in 2012, Gove bemoaned the extent of private-school dominance. “In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”) Government, he argues, bears a responsibility to help the disadvantaged become the “authors of their own life story”. As right-wing ideologies go, it is hardly Ayn Rand.

The team Gove recruited to help in his new job included Dominic Cummings, a former aide to Iain Duncan Smith; Henry de Zoete, who had worked at the Tory think tank Reform; and Sam Freedman, an education wonk from Policy Exchange. The advisers made for quite a similar group. They were all men in their thirties and forties. None had taught, or had children of school age. They had all attended Oxford or Cambridge. They were voracious readers, particularly of history, and confident talkers who relished intellectual debate. None was a fan of David Cameron, whom they regarded as irredeemably superficial. They had little time for party politics, and didn’t cherish political ambitions (nearly all of them left politics after resigning from Gove’s team). They saw themselves as sojourners in government, on special assignment to ameliorate the lot of the nation’s children, and they were united in admiration for a man they ­regarded as the only politician in Britain with the intellect, bravery and moral purpose to lead the mission.


Gove inspires loyalty among those who have worked for or with him, even those who weren’t close to him. Those I spoke to for this piece declined, for the most part, to speak on the record, not so much out of fear as concern that they might upset him.

In private, it is said, Gove is funny, acerbic, mischievous. A senior adviser to Ed Miliband during the last parliament told me that if he bumped into Gove in the foyer of Portcullis House, a sotto voce conversation would ensue, spiced with some less-than-reverential comment about one of Gove’s colleagues, or even his boss. Gove can converse knowledgeably and passionately on most topics. He devours books, mainly history (particularly about Britain and America in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the really big things got done) and political biography. He loves Wagner, and has made the pilgrimage to the annual festival in Bayreuth, Bavaria. His son is a football fan and so, having had limited interest in the sport, Gove is now an expert on it. His mental bandwidth is high: whether it’s culture or briefing documents, his ability to acquire and absorb information is impressive.

Everyone mentions his politeness. He is elaborately courteous, not just with friends and potential allies but with opponents,
junior civil servants and children. If he wants to charm you, he looks you in the eye and listens intently. His politeness is rigorously enforced, as if developed to constrain some anarchic inner force. It can also be used as a weapon. “Michael is aggressively polite,” a former colleague of his told me. “He uses his politeness to make people feel uncomfortable; to put them out of their comfort zone.” The politeness has a distancing effect even on those who know and like him. “I worked with him closely for years,” said the former colleague, “and I barely knew him.” A friend told me, “There is a mystery at the heart of Michael.” Another said that he imagines Gove’s formality extends even to his wife, although her columns sometimes read like deliberate attempts to deformalise her husband: she has discussed his inept driving, his aromatic orange corduroys, and even the couple’s conjugal relations (“just another chore . . . to tick off your endless to-do list”).

The psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips talks about something that artists and children have in common: a need to hide, and at the same time be seen. You often get the sense, observing Gove, that he is trying to conceal something and also to let you know about it. After finishing an elegant non-answer to a difficult question, he will smirk, momentarily, as if to signal collusion in an ironic joke. He presents the decorous façade, and he wants you to know there is something even more interesting behind it.

Whatever else there is, there is decency. In 2013, Mary Bousted, the head of the ATL teachers’ union, was attacking Gove in the media. So she was surprised, when she got married that year, to receive a card and ­present from the minister. “Personally, he’s very kind,” she said. In 2014 the wife of his former policy adviser Freedman gave birth to a stillborn child. Freedman hadn’t been in regular contact with his old boss since leaving government. Gove wrote a handwritten letter of condolence to him and his wife. Freedman was moved. “It was a thoughtful letter: not dashed off, but something he had clearly spent time on.”


In May 2010, at the age of 42, Gove ­became secretary of state for children, families and schools. He came to office unusually well prepared. “Gove identified the right challenges,” says Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, the head teachers’ union. “He had mastered his brief to a degree rarely seen.” Bousted, as leader of the ATL, was taken to dinner by Gove shortly after he took office. She was charmed, and found him “knowledgeable, interested and committed”. Mark Lehain, headmaster of Bedford Free School, who belongs to the small but vocal group of teachers who have backed Gove in public, told me: “Those guys had a plan. They realised that you can’t reform any one part of the system in isolation. So they had thought about everything: school structures, academic standards, teacher training . . .”

They also had the contours of a powerful narrative, with a victim, an enemy and a solution. Children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, were being failed by a complacent and self-interested education establishment. “We identified three groups that were holding back the [teaching] profession,” a former adviser to Gove said: local authorities, the unions, and the universities doing teacher training. “We went after all three.” Gove believed that local authorities were too inept and lazy to turn around failing schools, that the unions were more interested in the welfare of teachers than in children, and that head teachers were better qualified to train their staff than woolly-headed Marxist sociologists.

The answer was to liberate schools from local authority control. Academies – self-governing schools, funded directly from central government and sponsored by businesses, church groups, charities or private schools – were introduced in a cautious manner by Tony Blair’s government, as a last resort, to improve failing schools in poor areas that were managed incompetently by their local authority. Gove proposed to accelerate this programme, and to make academy status the default for new schools, breaking the link with disadvantaged communities. He would also introduce “free schools”, allowing groups of teachers or parents to set up on their own if they were unhappy with the local schools available to them.

Members of Gove’s circle have differing recollections of how preconceived was his offensive on the education establishment. Certainly, in his opposition days, Gove made efforts to charm and persuade most of the key players in education policy, including Labour Party reformers and amenable trade unionists. But once he was in office, both sides dug in, and battle commenced.

In his Whitehall office, Gove hung pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X. Like any good radical, he believed in the necessity of advancing at speed. “Michael knew that politics is fickle and that he might soon be out of a job,” a friend who was with him in those early days told me. “We needed to get as much done as quickly as possible.” Seventy-seven days after the 2010 general election, he had pushed a hastily drafted bill into law, containing a blizzard of provisions, at the centre of which were new powers for the secretary of state to remove schools from local authority control. The civil service
had advised him that it would take three to five years to open the first free schools. The department opened 20 by September 2011, and a hundred more the following year.

Gove’s team felt under siege, from within and without. They inherited a group of ­officials sceptical about their pedal-to-the-metal policymaking. A senior civil servant told the Times, “Michael Gove is one of those conviction politicians who has got very strong prior beliefs about what works, and he isn’t that fussed about evidence.” Their plans were frequently leaked to the press or the opposition; documents were stolen from photocopiers. Every day brought new
crises that required urgent attention.

In the summer of 2010 came what one former adviser calls “a grade A catastrophe”. Labour had started a £55bn programme of investment in new school buildings, known as Building Schools for the Future, that Gove regarded as a fiscal extravagance. He peremptorily cancelled it, without attention to the details of which schools should or shouldn’t get the buildings they had been promised. A panicked department couldn’t get the list of affected schools right. Again and again it published the wrong list, as teachers howled and the press shrieked. Gove made a humiliating apology on the floor of the House. Tom Watson called him a “miserable little pipsqueak”. He was on the brink of resigning – or getting fired.


That he stuck it out was due in part to the intervention of his closest adviser, Dominic Cummings. It is impossible to understand Gove’s time at Education, or indeed Gove, without considering his relationship with the man described by Nick Clegg as “loopy” and by others as brilliant or bullying, or both. Cummings got to know Gove while he was running a campaign against the euro; Gove was then at the Times. Later, when Iain Duncan Smith became leader of the Conservatives, he appointed Cummings as his director of strategy, though that didn’t last long: he was too jagged-edged for Tory MPs to cope with, and Duncan Smith was too cautious for Cummings, who has a distaste for the fudges of Westminster politics. Cummings spent the next two and a half years in a bunker under his father’s farm in Durham, reading books on astrophysics and military history and constructing an elaborate theory of the shortcomings of the British state, before returning to the fray on behalf of his friend.

Cummings, like Gove, has a love of argument, as well as a suspicion, bordering on contempt, for those who compromise, muddle through and fail to pick sides. But he doesn’t have Gove’s politesse. He cares little – or even notices – what people think of him. In a departmental meeting, Gove might make his dissatisfaction clear by his tone, but it would be Cummings who told the civil servants they were a shambles, or who shut meetings down abruptly, and Cummings who sent around hectoring emails, with liberal use of capital letters, to staff in the department.

When Gove’s critics bemoan his pugilistic tendency, they usually identify Cummings as a bad influence, a devil in his ear. But they are brothers in arms, and Gove, if anything, is the more impulsive provocateur. His instinct for combat is tempered, however, by his desire to please and entertain. Privately, Gove has referred to Cummings as his “daemon” – in Philip Pullman’s terms, an expression of your personality that in the real world must be hidden.

Gove valued Cummings’s street-fighting skills and his fearlessness in a crisis. When the Building Schools for the Future storm blew in, Cummings was in exile, after being banned from joining Gove in government by Andy Coulson, then David Cameron’s communications director, who knew Cummings would never be subject to message discipline. Cummings visited Great Smith Street and told Gove to stop apologising: it only made him look weak. Gove started to return fire. Eventually, the officials got the right list out. The media moved on. Sam Freedman told me that this was the moment when the political steel entered Gove’s soul. “He realised that he was always going to be under attack,” his former policy adviser said,
“so he had to be on the attack himself.”

From then on, punches were met with harder counterpunches. Gove declared it his mission to vanquish “the enemies of promise” (these enemies included “the blob”, his term for education academics, but which many took to mean teachers). An unnamed adviser told the Financial Times, “There’s institutional power that needs to be destroyed. A lot of our job is walking along the cliff edge and stamping their fingers off.” Melodramatic combat metaphors proliferated. Gove described the early free schools as “the first on the beach at D-Day”. He told the Times, through an adviser, that he was “shellshocked” in the first months of government but that now, “every time anyone shoots at me and misses it is exhilarating knowing I am still alive”. Mary Bousted told me that she came to think of the Gove she’d met over dinner as “an elaborate façade”.

Revolutions are messy, and mistakes are inevitable: the radical accepts this as the price of speed. Cummings is fond of the Facebook motto “Move fast and break things”. Gove’s version, coined in response to questioning from a select committee, is “Coherence comes at the end of the process”. But Gove’s team made many of their big moves without thinking them through. Their targets had a random quality: why 500 free schools? They threw cash at schools that agreed to become academies, without extracting any promises from them in return, with the result that some schools took the money without changing much at all except their name. They neglected to design a proper system for deciding who should be allowed to sponsor academies, or for assessing whether the trusts were doing a good job, leading to an ongoing series of snarl-ups. Eventually they had to ask a Tory peer, the hedge-fund manager and venture capitalist John Nash, to invent a sponsor evaluation policy. Its workings remain mysterious, even to those involved in academies.

Gove’s personal interventions in curriculum reform – his crusade to put British history first, for instance – generated plenty of news but didn’t seem to be based on much beyond the minister’s own prejudices, and quickly got bogged down. The curriculum his team left behind wasn’t, in the end, all that different from the one they inherited. An attempt to replace GCSEs with O-levels blew up on the launchpad. Announcing his climbdown, the minister described the reform as “a bridge too far”.

Despite all this, Gove’s reputation rose within the Tory party and among Tory supporters. His attacks on left-wingers, bureaucrats and unions provided endless fodder for right-wing journalists, who hailed him as the star of Cameron’s government, and even as a potential successor. The story of head teachers and children being freed from the grip of left-wing oppressors was irresistible, and made all the mishaps seem worthwhile. Yet even as it propelled Gove forward, it was undermining his reforms – and him.


If you want to change the education system, you need teachers, at least a large proportion of them, on your side. “When the classroom door is shut,” Russell Hobby told me, “teachers will go back to doing what they’ve always done – unless you bring them with you.” Conor Ryan, formerly an adviser to one of Gove’s most consequential predecessors, David Blunkett, told me that although Blunkett wasn’t afraid of upsetting the teaching unions, he always made sure to have at least one ally among them, too. Education secretaries are rarely popular with teachers, but none has been quite as unpopular as Gove.

Why did teachers so revile him? Perhaps it was the cognitive dissonance of a Conservative education secretary implementing policies with a progressive bent, such as the Pupil Premium (extra funding for schools with a disadvantaged intake). Mark Lehain, the head of Bedford Free School, said, “For years, teachers have been asking for more control over how they teach, and for funding according to the needs of kids. Along comes Gove – a Tory – and he does all that. And there’s uproar.”

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher. She was invited to Great Smith Street more than once to give Gove’s advisers a classroom-level perspective. She liked them, and felt listened to, even when she was being directly critical. But the divide between plan and reality was too great. “The world you inhabit if you’re in Whitehall, with the neat policy solutions and the sense of moral purpose, is just so different to being in a classroom of thirty children chucking stuff at you, or dealing with a kid whose parents are pimping them out at the weekend,” McInerney said.

When I asked her if the response of teachers to Gove was disproportionate, she drew a deep breath. “My school was in buildings that had been rendered inadequate for ten years. Two generations of children had been through the doors of a condemned building. We were six weeks from having a new one. Then he cancelled it. Imagine being the head teacher. You’ve spent three years on a plan for the new building, consulting with parents, hoping that in 18 months or so it might be a place where you don’t feel ill every time you walk in. And someone comes along and says, ‘Sorry, no.’ Ten years!”

She paused, but continued, in a voice tightening with remembered fury. “Then they whack you over the head for teaching media studies instead of computing, and tell you that if you fail on this, all your senior leaders will be sacked and replaced by an academy trust. You don’t need to know who this trust is, or why it’s going to be running your school – that will be decided by a hedge-
fund manager. Oh, and we’re changing the curriculum, so every lesson you’ve ever planned in the last five years is obsolete, and you can’t use any of it again. Imagine the panic, in any workplace, if all of those things hit you! And every week he’s ­announcing this stuff in the Sunday fucking Times, which is owned by his previous boss.”

This degree of anger towards Gove baffles his advisers. One of them told me, “He gave more speeches talking more positively about teachers than any secretary of state has ever done.” But, to teachers, the praise felt fake. Politeness comes at a cost to authenticity: it is, by definition, a formal mode of expression, used to conceal what we really feel, and one problem with Gove’s praise for teachers is that it felt like mere politeness. The other is that it was double-edged. Debra Kidd, a teacher and blogger who became one of his most high-profile critics, told me: “In every speech where he praised teachers, he alienated teachers.” When Gove talked about “the best generation of teachers ever”, it felt as if he were trying to divide teachers into the ones who “got it” and those who didn’t – into goodies and baddies. Teachers came to feel that they were being called “enemies of promise”.

During an onstage question-and-answer session at the Institute of Education in London in 2012, Gove declared it was time to believe in the “educability” of every child. A furious member of the audience interrupted, telling him that all teachers have high ambitions for their pupils. Most politicians would have reacted with praise and reassurance. Gove felt it opportune to tell a roomful of teachers that some of them plainly were failing children, because there are failing schools. It was logically correct, and it was stupid.


The colleague of Gove’s who called him the most interesting man in politics added a caveat: “Apart from, maybe, George Osborne.” Osborne is interesting in a different way, however. He is a talented tactician, skilled at accumulating power, but he hasn’t yet conveyed a sense of purpose, other than the advancement of his and his party’s interests. Gove is the opposite. He is a storyteller who has honed the events of his own life into the kind of personal story beloved of US presidential candidates. Yet he isn’t interested in political process (he was a terrible chief whip) and is more likely to fixate on obstacles to change, such as EU regulations or Whitehall inertia. Osborne takes satisfaction in working the machine; Gove would rather take a hammer to it. Osborne likes to repeat Lyndon B Johnson’s maxim about getting votes: the first rule of politics is to be able to count. Gove, as even his friends admit, is not good with numbers.

One of the interesting things about Gove is that he is interesting in public as well as in private. Most politicians who rise to the level of cabinet minister have either learned the art of being dull in public or were born with a gift for it. But in speeches and interviews, Gove is compelled to sparkle. He cannot flip an internal switch and become an automaton. This makes him likeable as a person, especially to journalists. It can be useful for a politician, too – Gove knew how to make headlines without having new policies. Yet it makes him an unstable figure, prone to combust, and it puts a natural limit on his ambition. He has always denied, convincingly, any desire to be prime minister.

If you are Lynton Crosby and an election is hoving into view, you do not look kindly on spontaneity of expression. We may never know at which point Crosby began to reconsider his view of the education minister. The meeting at Great Smith Street in November 2013 took place just at the point at which Gove’s media-buoyed self-confidence was highest. He was showing signs of boredom with his day job. The major reforms had passed into law, and the mechanics of consolidation held little interest for him. By 2014 he was casting around for attention. In an article for the Daily Mail, he attacked what he took to be the prevailing view of the First World War. Spraying bullets wildly, he hit historians, the BBC (for Blackadder) and even his own government, criticising the official opinion that Germany should not be blamed for the war.

In March that year, he made further headlines by complaining about the number of Old Etonians in cabinet, which he described to a Financial Times journalist as “preposterous”. This aligned so closely to one of Labour’s main lines of attack that it can only have infuriated No 10, including Crosby.

Three months later, at dinner with former colleagues from the Times, Gove discussed an alleged plot in Birmingham schools to indoctrinate children into Islamist ideology. Pushing the boundaries of his ministerial remit, he had hired an anti-terrorism expert to write a report on the problem. Now, forgetting that his comments might be legitimately reported, and no doubt eager to say something interesting to his old peers, Gove blamed the Home Office for failing to “drain the swamp” of extremism. On seeing the Times front page the next day, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was furious. In the subsequent fallout, May was forced to sack her closest adviser, but it was Gove who was made to apologise by a furious Prime Minister.

In July, Gove gave an interview to Allegra Stratton on BBC TV’s Newsnight. She asked him about a poll which had found that less than a fifth of teachers supported him. Gove started to stumble over his words. Determined to regain his customary verbal command, he accidentally made explicit what he had previously only implied. “What I can tell you is that outstanding teachers, and outstanding head teachers, are, I find, overwhelmingly in favour of what we’re doing.” Stratton: “So it’s the bad ones that don’t get it?” Gove: “Yes.”

Five days later he was fired.


We often tell ourselves that we want politicians to have ideals; to stand for things; to keep promises; to speak their minds rather than parrot the party line; to stay true to who they are; to care about more than their own career. Gove does all this. He really is, in the disdainful phrase of that senior civil servant who spoke to the Times, “one of those conviction politicians”. That he is hated by some and unloved by many tells us something about the difference between what we wish for, and what, in practice, we want.

Mark Lehain of Bedford Free School told me that although Gove is unpopular with the teaching profession his reforms are not. “Not many teachers would want to give up on greater autonomy, or reverse the changes to funding, or to exams.” Even Gove’s critics usually concede that he made some lastingly important reforms. He restored integrity to a curriculum and assessment system that had lost its focus on academic standards. He made it easier for central government to remove failing schools from the grip of incompetent local authorities.

But he never solved, or even made a serious attempt to solve, the biggest problem of all: how take the formula of the best schools and replicate it at scale. There are a few outstanding academy chains, such as Ark or the Harris Federation (both of which pre-date his reign), whose schools turn in excellent results on behalf of children from disadvantaged families: children who would otherwise have been failed by the system. (These schools remain perversely undercelebrated by the left – the Guardian and New Statesman writer Suzanne Moore described academies as “madrasas for the middle classes” – and in recent years Gove’s radicalism has been mirrored by Labour’s conservatism; under Jeremy Corbyn the party is now committed to abolishing academy status.)

It has not been easy to find enough trusts capable of running academies well, however, or sufficient numbers of good head teachers. Any solution probably requires combining the best local authorities with the best academy chains. Some local authorities are bad at running schools; some do it exceptionally well. Gove’s insistence on cutting them out was as myopic as the left-wing insistence that only local government bureaucracies should be allowed to manage schools.

In time, his reforms may be shown to be less significant than they once seemed. There is no evidence that academies are, on average, better than schools under local authority control. He did not break the power of the unions, because the unions did not have much power to begin with. The school system has been fractured, but it hasn’t reconstituted itself into a new form. Its size and complexity – 500,000 teachers in 20,000 schools – make it resistant to big changes from above. Maybe it can only ever be nudged along, and then only by someone with a dogged attention to detail.

Gove might have stayed in his job for longer, and got more done, had he not been so determined to stage a drama of radicalism, with himself in the lead. “He would ­announce policies in a Sunday newspaper, in a way that was, inevitably, free of nuance. So they were bound to be rejected by teachers on Monday morning,” says Russell Hobby of the head teachers’ union. “That made me wonder what his priority was: to make the reforms work, or to win arguments?” A former MP who worked with Gove on education told me: “Michael enjoys battle. Not just winning, but the process – being noticed for it.”

His gift for rhetoric created a legacy itself, however. As Crosby noted, Gove changed the political weather around education. The Conservative Party does not clamour quite as it did for the return of grammar schools. It is much more likely than it was to take pride in the state school system: witness the jubilant coverage in the Tory press of this year’s GCSE results, full of favourable comparisons to private schools. David Cameron is the first serving Conservative prime minister to have a child at a state secondary school (his daughter Nancy attends the Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster, as does Gove’s daughter). It is also harder now, wherever you stand on the political spectrum, to write off certain schools or school districts as faced with an impossible task of educating the poor. Nobody wants to be accused of being an enemy of promise. The education blogger Debra Kidd, a vociferous critic of Gove, told me that she recently attended a conference at which the new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was speaking. “She was so bland that I found myself thinking, ‘I miss Michael Gove.’ He was always interesting.”


Gove has a lot on his hands at ­Justice – the Human Rights Act, criminal justice reform, prisons – and he has once again convinced himself that time is short (one of his friends indicated that he may have to resign over the EU referendum if Cameron insists on collective responsibility). He will not spend much time or political capital on efforts to scrap the Human Rights Act. Cameron has ruled out a withdrawal from the European Convention, which makes the complicated and troublesome business of replacing one bill of rights with another seem particularly pointless.

His most urgent task is to steady a criminal justice system on the brink of crisis, a problem he inherited from his immediate predecessor, the flamboyantly incompetent Chris Grayling. Funding for legal aid has been slashed to a level that gravely endangers the quality of justice available to the poor. Criminal lawyers are overstretched and underpaid. The system is creaking, clogged and slow, and makes victims of victims; it can take two years for a rape charge to come to trial. If he improves access to justice, he will win a widely applauded victory.

Then there is penal reform. Prison staffing has been cut by a third in the past five years without any drop in the number of prisoners. Prison officers therefore feel it increasingly necessary to confine inmates to their cells, and to shut out the outside world altogether. But keeping prisoners inactive and isolated only creates misery and violence, and makes it more likely they will reoffend on release. Gove believes in the state’s moral responsibility to those in its charge. He also sees an opportunity. By moving the emphasis of the prison system towards rehabilitation and education, he can reduce prison numbers and hence spending: prisoners who put the work in can be considered for early release. Populist right-wing opposition effectively ended Kenneth Clarke’s attempt to do something similar, but Gove is a wilier player of the Tory press than late-period Clarke.

It is a challenge that could have been designed for Gove. In an early speech on the subject, he pointed out that a high proportion of prisoners come from homes scarred by poverty, violence or drug abuse; but for a twist of fate, that might have been him. The system is not nearly as large or complex as the school system, and is more amenable to reshaping from the centre. This time it is prisoners, not children, whose development is being stymied, and prison governors, rather than head teachers, who need to be empowered, to allow faith groups, charities, and employers, into prisons. The prison service, however, is resistant to partnering with outsiders.

In the first months in his new job, he has been conciliatory, charming and curious. He has praised barristers warmly and invited the likes of the Howard League for Penal Reform, usually kept at a distance from Tory governments, into his big tent. But then, this is how he started at Education. Friends of his told me he now understands, better than he did, the need to build alliances. But the gap between knowing something intellectually and conforming to it can be wide.

Lawyers, when he reflects, might make a juicy target (somebody who was present in the room for a cabinet meeting in the last parliament recalled Gove making a quip to the effect that he wanted a country in which there were more railway lines and fewer lawyers). Many voters will happily believe that barristers are guilty of Spanish practices. The prison service is a monopoly. If it is standing in the way of prisoners becoming the authors of their own life stories, won’t it have to be taken on?

In a column published the day before the general election, Sarah Vine raged against the government machine. Her targets included the civil service (“neither civil nor a service”), the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, and Speaker John Bercow. “Politics is the opposite of meritocratic,” she wrote: “keep your head down and get on with your job, and you’ll get no glory.” Her husband is hardly in need of this lesson. Reform through consensus may be a fine thing, but no glory accompanies it. There is likely to come a time soon when Michael Gove feels the need, perhaps after due provocation, to take the pin out of a grenade and hurl it into enemy territory.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide