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The elephant and the lone star

The message from Barack Obama’s victory in the 2012 election was that Latino America holds the balance of power. But in Texas, it seems — despite Bush’s best efforts — that hasn’t yet sunk in to Republican minds.

Eddi Regolado still cries when he hears the national anthem: not that of his native Nicaragua, from which he fled with his family during the long civil war when he was seven, but of his new and adoptive home, the United States of America. He and his family settled in Texas in the state capital, Austin, but the citizenship process was arduous. It took Regolado nearly 20 years to naturalise but he doesn’t mind. “Every single member of my family loves the US,” he says. “We’re proud to be here.”

He works two and a half blocks north of the state capitol building in Austin – practically in the shadow of its hulking red dome – as the general manager at El Mercado, an airy and pleasant Mexican eatery. Over chalupas (a sort of stuffed taco shell salad) and margaritas, he tells me he still feels nostalgic about Nicaragua. “Going back is like going to my mother’s house. America is like, our wife. But it’s good to see Mother from time to time.”

Regolado is a Democrat. His parents are Democrats. Pretty much his whole family votes Democrat. He says Latinos lean that way because the Democrats “tend to help out more with immigration. When you’re new, from a different country – how do I put this? – a lot of families have a hard time assimilating. The Democrats help out with that. It’s not loyalty, exactly, but that’s why they tend to vote the way they do.”

He feels the Democrats are just making more of an effort to reach his community. “All the minorities, really.”

He thinks that as the Latino population of Texas increases in size, there will be a process of realisation of power for his community, a realisation that engagement with the political system can help Latinos get their voices heard. If they wake up in this way – and if the Republicans continue to alienate Regolado and his family in the way they are doing – at some point soon the Democrats could take Texas. Here’s how important this is: in a presidential election, Texas has 38 electoral college votes, the second most of any state, behind only California. If the Democrats turn Texas, that’s it for the Republicans. Game over. Lights out. Unless the Republican Party reforms beyond all recognition, there might never be a Republican president ever again.


Texas was annexed from Mexico by colonists from the US in the 1830s, birthing the short-lived independent Republic of Texas after a short but bloody conflict, the most famous battle of which was the Alamo in 1836. It was pretty much the last battle Texas lost, a massacre of 187 troops holed up inside a mission in San Antonio, routed by General López de Santa Anna’s army of more than 5,000. Outside the capitol building, two blocks from El Mercado, is a statue commemorating the heroes of that battle. The fight begat a rallying call that Texan patriots remember to this day: “Remember the Alamo!”

In some parts of the population, especially among the older white males and especially in more rural areas, there is a kind of inherited memory that still attaches great importance to the Battle of the Alamo. They see Texas as a white bastion, and their sense of the loss of the 1836 republic, a sense that in some intangible way they are being overrun, is a powerful political force. It most often emerges in the form of an obsession with policing the borders and finding and deporting illegal immigrants.

During last year’s presidential election, to avoid being outflanked on the right by competitors such as Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney engaged in antiimmigrant rhetoric, making much-criticised proposals about “self-deportation”. Unsurprisingly, Romney’s support among Hispanics on election day was catastrophically low, 44 points behind Barack Obama – yet he was seen as a moderate candidate by current Republican standards.

“I’m not in the crystal ball business,” says Bill White, a former mayor of Houston and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who ran against Rick Perry for governor of Texas in 2010 and who, despite losing overall, received a greater share of the vote than any Democrat in the state’s history. “But if the Republican Party continues on its present course, then they will become a minority party in Texas.”

Latinos today make up 38 per cent of the electorate in Texas, a proportion that is growing swiftly, but they are under-represented in the Republican Party; out of a GOP delegation of 95 in the Texas House of Representatives, only three are Hispanic, while Latinos form an absolute majority of the Democratic delegation: 29 out of 55. This is a good sign for the Democrats. Latino voters represent a segment of the population that is increasing sharply both in size and in political engagement, and the Republican Party seems hellbent on alienating them.

Professor Mark Jones, who chairs the political science department at Rice University in Houston, warns that the Democrats can’t just wait for the demographic shift to come to them. “If the Democrats sit back and do nothing, they’re depending on the Republicans continuing to commit the same errors they’ve been making up until now,” he says. “The worst-case Democrat scenario is, they do nothing, and the Republicans bite the bullet and kick the immigration issue. If that happens, then the Republicans can cling on to dominant status here for 20 to 30 years.”

But, Jones says, if the Republicans don’t rid themselves of their anti-immigrant rhetoric, even if Democrats continue to sit back and do nothing, the state could shift sooner than that: perhaps within 15 years. “The third scenario, the best-case scenario for Democrats, is that Republicans continue the same way – adopting a very hard line on immigration; allowing that to dominate the image of the party – while Democrats get their act together and do a good job of mobilising and registering Hispanics. Then we could see a shift even sooner: in, say, eight years.” That means Texas would flip to the Democrats more or less “by the end of the decade”.


In the 2010 census, Texas had grown sufficiently to merit the addition of four seats in Congress – the number of federal senators is fixed at two per state regardless of size but the House of Representatives uses a metric based on population. That growth was almost exclusively in the Hispanic population.

However, it is important to note the differences within that community. National political strategists have usually lumped all Hispanic interests together, but this is wrong. Even at a casual glance, the Mexican-American population is very different from the Cuban Americans, who lean more conservative. Most of the Republican Party’s highprofile Hispanic candidates: Marco Rubio in Florida, Ted Cruz in Texas – candidates on whom the party pins its hopes for winning over the entire Latino community – are Cuban-American and will struggle to win over the Hispanic voting bloc en masse. To win the primary for his Senate race, Cruz ran to the right on many issues that the Latino community finds troubling, promising to build a wall at the border, for instance, and to triple the size of the border patrol. This has not found him favour with many Latino voters. Eddi Regolado, for one, says that he thinks they would be much more likely to support a white Democratic presidential candidate such as Hillary Clinton than someone like Cruz or Rubio.

“It’s interesting in Texas that the reputation of the state is [that] it’s overwhelmingly Republican,” says Joe Holley, the political editor of the Houston Chronicle. “And yet every one of its big cities are Democratic.” To some extent, Texas has always been a oneparty state, and it was actually a Democratic stronghold from the Reconstruction era – the 1860s and 1870s – right up until the 1980s, as Holley explains. It gradually began to change in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and by the 1990s Texas was still a one-party state, but that was now the Republican Party.

Now, once again, the demographic change is slowly loading weight back on the other side of the see-saw.

“This is sort of, in kind of a quirky way, the second Texas Revolution,” says Holley, smiling. “And this time, the Mexicans are going to win.”


Jon Greene teaches English as a foreign language in downtown Houston, and he invites me to sit in with him on the course. It’s a chilly Thursday night, the last lesson of the term. There are ten people here, some young and some old, all Hispanic. Immigration is a sensitive subject in Texas, so the status of the students – illegal or legal – is off the table, as are names. I will lend some of the classmates a nom de guerre for the purposes of this article. The class is split about half and half between those of Mexican and El Salvadorean origins. Most say they came to America looking for work, or as children with their parents doing the same. A few of the El Salvadoreans say they came fleeing violence; a civil war raged in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992.

Many are educated professionals in their country of origin but struggle to find work in the US – one, Sofia, a lawyer back in Mexico, has been working as a babysitter. Many of the students are here because speaking English helps in the search for work, but many are also here to help them communicate with younger, more integrated members of their families. Cristina, who came to the US in 1980, is one of the latter: her daughter is an opera singer and her son is a trainee journalist, and for both of them their first language is English.

I ask a few questions about politics. Greene, their teacher, had warned me that the English of some of the students was pretty basic, but we make impressive progress as the class warms to the subject.

After introductions, we go around the room namechecking highprofile Hispanic politicians. Many of them talk about Adrian Garcia, the popular sheriff of Harris County in metropolitan Houston. Rick Perry, the Republican governor, gets short shrift, but the Castro brothers – Joaquin and Julián, the former the new congressman for the 20th district of Texas and the latter the mayor of San Antonio, whose keynote speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention gave him a public profile across the country – are warmly approved. Maria cites the appointment to the Supreme Court of Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican, as another sign of a Hispanic political awakening.

“This is the first time a black person stands for president,” says Juana, from Mexico. “Maybe next time, a Hispanic?”

“Maybe a woman, too?” Cristina shoots back. Grins of female solidarity dart across the room. Some of the men – somewhat unwisely – giggle. Sofia the lawyer snaps at them in Spanish, and the debate descends into a lively row.

I ask if any of them is a particular fan of the Republican Party. That makes everyone go quiet. There is a long silence, broken by a cough. Cristina shakes her head slowly. How about Romney? “He don’t like the Hispanic people,” says Rafael, one of the younger El Salvadoreans. There are murmurs of agreement. “I vote for Democrats. I’m a Democrat,” Cristina says. The other classmates nod their assent.


The following day, as the storm cloud that has been hanging over Houston for days finally breaks into torrential rain, I drive out to an adjunct tower block near the Rice University campus to meet Steve Murdock, the director of the Hobby Centre for the Study of Texas, a professor of sociology, a former official state demographer for Texas and, before that, the director of the US Census Bureau.

Murdock, as his background would imply, is a man who loves his data. My interview with him involved the prolonged viewing of no fewer than 120 charts and visualisations showing projections of the Hispanic populations of Texas and the US. As he says to me with a grin when I sit down: “You have to watch out for a demographer – they always want to show you data.”

The numbers are staggering. In the age group 65 and over, there are many more Anglos – a Southern slang term for non-Hispanic whites – than Hispanics: 67.6 per cent to 20.5. But as age descends, the ratios switch over. In the 35-to-39 age group they are about equal and by the time you get to the under-fives there are considerably more Hispanics than Anglos – 50.6 per cent to 31.7 per cent. In total, Hispanics account for 48.3 per cent of the under-18s in the state and that figure is rising. By the time the current cohort of children is of voting age, Hispanics will be the majority in Texas.

“You really have, in the US, two populations,” says Murdock, as lightning streaks the sky outside: “an ageing set of non-Hispanic whites, whose fertility has been below replacement for over 20 years, and a young and growing minority population.”

Texas and other states that have had high levels of Hispanic immigration, such as California, are some decades ahead of the curve, yet the census data shows a similar trend in the US as a whole. “[What we’re seeing is] one of the largest changes to occur in US history in terms of broad changes in ethnic composition,” Murdock says.

He shows me another graph, this time of projections of the US population out towards 2050. It shows a dramatic shift. The non-Hispanic white population rises just seven million, from 196 million to 203 million. The Hispanic population, however, nearly quadruples, from 36 million to 133 million. The difference in percentage change is enormous. In Texas, the projection is even starker. Assuming zero net migration, the population of Texas will be majority Hispanic – just – by 2030. Assuming the same net migration as in the years 2000-2010, that will happen before the end of the decade, and the projection is that by 2050 Texas will have nearly three times as many Hispanics as Anglos – although, because that figure includes the under-18s, the switch-over from minority to majority in terms of the electorate will happen a little while later. Murdock is the first to note that long-term projections can be shaky – there is a wide margin of error at play – but according to even his most conservative estimates, the change is inevit able. “Demographically,” he says, “we’re not looking with much question at what the future is going to be.”


Demographics are different from politics. While the former may be changing swiftly and unstoppably, working out how this will affect the latter is a more complex endeavour. By no means should we take it for granted that a rising Hispanic population will lead to a corresponding rise in the Democrat vote – and the Democrats have been blasé in their approach to Texas.

I ask Mark Jones at Rice if that attitude on the left is matched by a disbelief on the Republican side that they could ever lose Texas. “I think the Republican pragmatists get it,” he says. “Even privately, some of the right wing gets it; they just don’t want to say it publicly. But the problem they run into is convincing those people who vote in primaries, some of the real activists, who either don’t believe it – they just don’t see a linkage between their rhetoric and the Hispanic vote – or who believe Latinos are all hooked on welfare and they’re never going to win them over.”

Maria Baños Jordan is the executive director of the Texas Latino Leadership Roundtable, a group that aims to foster and encourage leadership and political engagement in the Latino community. She is of mixed Hispanic origin. Her father was a Cuban refugee who came to the US in the early 1960s after the rise of Fidel Castro; her mother was a Mexican immigrant. They met in Houston.

“I grew up in the change, in the time where Houston started to really just explode, and the population started to become more diverse. When I was a little girl, I was the only Latina in my class. So I know what that felt like, and I know what it felt like to be questioned about your culture, and your behaviours and your tradition.”

Today, by contrast, the public school system in Texas is overwhelmingly Hispanicmajority, a reflection of the changing demographics. In Houston, non-Hispanic whites account for just 7.8 per cent of enrolled students. Hispanic students account for 61.9 per cent. Jordan’s organisation, in parallel, has taken off in a big way in recent years. “The feel in Texas right now,” she says, “is that the state is ripe for more Latino leadership.”

I wonder why an established, resident and maybe second- or third- or even fourth-generation immigrant population still gets angry about legislation affecting new or illegal immigrants. “The immigration issue is such an emotional one,” Jordan says, “especially when there are so many families that are intermarried, whether documented or undocumented, or first-generation or second-generation.

“It’s not black-and-white. We all have close friends or relatives that have issues with immigration. We’re dealing with it on a daily basis, so we are very tied to it. And we know that the law’s the law, but we need to see respect and dignity brought into the conversation. And it just hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

“To be honest,” says Eddi Regolado, “illegal immigration will never stop. People would rather take their chances than stay. A fence is not going to keep people out. This country was founded by immigrants. There has to be a way to help people.”

Hispanic-American support for the Democrats is not fixed; historically, it has fluctuated from election to election. Latinos came out in force in 2012 for Obama – 71 per cent of them voted Democrat, according to the Pew Research Centre, a level of support surpassed only in Bill Clinton’s 1996 race against Bob Dole, in which 72 per cent voted Democrat. But the Bushes, George and George W, clawed back a large part of the percentage point gap among Hispanics, so much so that where Obama was 44 points clear of Romney, George W Bush’s support in 2004 was just 18 points shy of John Kerry’s – still a big gap, but a much healthier margin.

Leonard Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, was partly responsible for this. He was George W Bush’s head of Latino outreach and later worked in the Bush White House as a strategist. It was Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, who first got him involved with garnering Latino support, and that was from the very beginning of the primary season, at the Iowa straw poll.

By contrast, Romney didn’t have anyone working on speaking to Latinos until much, much later in the campaign – by which time, Rodriguez tells me, it was “way too late” to push for any possible victory.

Even though Hispanics in Texas voted in higher numbers than was expected in 2012, and even though they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, there’s still a question as to when they will reach optimal force and influence and, more pertinently, whether the vote will be so dissipated when that happens that it will become no more or less significant than the Italian vote or the German vote. Republicans are hoping that, as the Latino community becomes more assimilated, it will vote less on immigration and more on social and economic issues – issues that Republicans hope they can use to strike a chord with Latinos as a socially conservative Catholic community that places high emphasis on family values. But those same values will also mean Hispanics identify Republicans as being “not for them” long after they have assimilated.

Bush continued to be sensitive to Hispanic Americans throughout his campaign, saying in a speech during a campaign stop in Texas in 2000: “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande River . . . People are coming to America because they are moms and dads trying to feed their children. As long as people are coming to feed their families, our country must be mindful that they’re human beings as well.” Just imagine a Republican candidate winning in the primaries today after giving a speech like that.

It didn’t stop after Bush’s victory, either. In 2001, one of his first actions as president was to change the custom of a new White House administration inviting the Canadian leader to be the guest at its first state dinner: Bush’s first state dinner was with the president of Mexico. “Compassionate conservatism” was to be at the heart of his administration’s domestic policy, and that meant credible immigration and domestic reform. At last, here was a conservative willing – even eager – to reach out to the Latino community.

“And then,” Leonard Rodriguez says, “we got hit with 9/11. No longer was that [domestic and immigration reform] agenda we’d been working on a top priority . . . since then, [Republicans have] been hijacked by this very right-wing, anti-immigrant dialect, and that’s one of the things the party’s been struggling with ever since.”

Maria Baños Jordan says that when Romney started to speak out against immigration and talk about imposing “self-deportation”, she “immediately know it was over. It showed that, whatever advice he was receiving, he was absolutely out of touch with what was happening across the nation.

“It was sad, in the sense that I felt that there were many Latinos waiting for someone to step up and speak to them with respect and in a way that translated, and at that point it was obviously not going to happen. And I don’t think he ever recovered.” T here is no doubt that it is the Republicans’ stance on immigration that is destroying them. At present, there is little discernible sign of interest in the party in doing anything about it.

Rodriguez is deeply saddened by this. “If you look at the structure of the Republican Party, I doubt they’ll go back to what Bush was trying to teach them, even when the party gets its leadership together. They’ll go back to the bad habits. I don’t expect that there’s going to be any Hispanic personnel in the next Republican Party.”


Towards the end of my time in Texas, I finally make the pilgrimage to San Antonio to see the Alamo. The shape of the old building – actually the original chapel, where the women and children took shelter – is instantly familiar. Outside, schoolchildren, most of them Latino, are gathering. A preacher, old and bearded and spitting vigorously, harangues the crowd. It is December but it is still very hot outside. A sign says “Welcome to the Alamo: the shrine of Texas liberty”.

Inside, it is cooler. Tourists study the displays of banners and scale models of the battle that are scattered about. I speak to one, a US army veteran and third-generation Mexican American who is visiting with his family. I ask what this place means to him, and he nods over his shoulder at the elderly white couple gazing at a glass case with Davy Crockett’s leather pouch in it.

“To a white Texan, it means everything,” he says. Then he asks if I can quote him anonymously. Yes, I say, absolutely.

“Me personally?” He leans in towards me conspiratorially. “I don’t give a shit about this place.”

Nicky Woolf is a contributing writer to GQ and reports for the New Statesman from the United States

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

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