The reaction to Michael Gove and Theresa May's briefing battle shows we're no longer used to our government ministers warring. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.