The reaction to Michael Gove and Theresa May's briefing battle shows we're no longer used to our government ministers warring. Photo: Getty
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What the response to the Trojan Horse scandal reveals about today's outwardly cleaner politics

The response to the Trojan Horse scandal, which has arisen from a rift between two powerful cabinet secretaries, tells us that our politics has been cleaner – or at least quieter – than ever.

Warring cabinet ministers. Backroom briefings. Overmighty special advisers. Policy implications obscured by political personalities. Resignations, apologies, and stony silence.

This is what we assume Westminster politics is all about. It's what riles and alienates the public. It's what excites and galvanises the media. And it certainly rings true in the furore of the Trojan Horse scandal currently causing such ire in No 10. Two powerful cabinet ministers – the Education Secretary and the Home Secretary – have been in a battle of briefings and leakings over Birmingham schools embroiled in an "extremism" row.

But the energetic response from Downing Street, opposition politicians and the media to this story reveals a cleaner, or at least quieter, politics in the upper echelons of government than we've had in a while. Public infighting between ministers was a notorious aspect of the often divided New Labour administration, but the political aspect of the Trojan Horse story reminds us that we haven't seen anything close to the factions, fictions and frictions of that time during this coalition. That's one of the reasons why a fall-out between cabinet ministers has caused such an extraordinary fuss. We're just not used to it anymore.

David Cameron is said to be furious about the damaging breakdown in cooperation between two of his most influential ministers, and has personally intervened. Michael Gove has been forced to apologise both to the prime minister and Home Office counter-terrorism adviser Charles Farr, whom he briefed against to The Times. Theresa May's special adviser, Fiona Cunningham, resigned over a letter published by the Home Secretary's office to Gove suggesting his department had failed to act over alleged plots to take over Birmingham schools.

Labour has weighed in heavily, with May and Gove's opposite numbers Yvette Cooper and Tristram Hunt writing to the PM accusing May of breaking the ministerial code, and calling for him to take action.

The home affairs select committee chair Keith Vaz has written to May demanding "a full explanation of what has happened" and has announced that his committee will call her in for questioning.

Journalists were always likely to leap on a story about a cabinet split, but the (rightly) horrified reaction from Downing Street, opposition and the backbenches suggests surprise at such a public dirty political tangle taking place under this government. Anonymous briefings and public infighting seem to be the stuff of New Labour history; the Blair/Brown backstabbing of yester-parliament. In contrast, Ed Miliband's party appears more-or-less united. And the deputy prime minister and Cameron had so far managed to stave off at least the lurid public mess of a cabinet table at each other's throats, even if there are inevitable disagreements behind closed, or slammed, doors.

Perhaps then the encouraging lesson we can take from the Gove/May rift is that it's an aberration from, rather than a foundation of, today's cabinet relations.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.