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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.