David Cameron’s unusually brutal response to Michael Gove and Theresa May’s briefing war – forcing Gove to apologise and May’s special adviser Fiona Cunningham to resign – was a desperate attempt to limit the damage from one of the most extraordinary episodes of the coalition’s time in office. Of the two ministers, it is May who has paid the biggest price. While Gove has had to issue an embarrassing but largely inconsequential apology to Cameron and to Charles Farr, the Home Office security chief he briefed against (who is currently in a relationship with Cunningham), May has suffered the permanent loss of her most loyal and trusted adviser.
This differing treatment reflects No. 10’s view of the gravity of their misdemeanours. While Gove was critical of what he regards as the Home Office’s lax approach to non-violent Islamist extremism at a Times editorial lunch on Monday (comments reported without attribution by the paper two days later), May took the far more dramatic step of publicly releasing her excoriating letter to the Education Secretary on Islamist infiltration of schools (tweeted at 12:24am on Wednesday morning from the Home Office account), an unprecedented act of hostility.
Reflecting this, it is the Home Secretary whom Labour is concentrating its firepower on. In a joint letter to Cameron, Yvette Cooper and Tristram Hunt have accused both Gove and May of breaking the ministerial code, but they focus on the latter’s alleged breaches. They write:
It appears that both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary have broken the Ministerial Code in the last week. The Education Secretary has now apologised, however the Home Secretary has remained silent.
As Prime Minister it is your responsibility to enforce the Ministerial Code. Can you therefore explain whether the Home Secretary has broken the Ministerial Code or not, and what enforcement action you have taken?
Section 2.1 of the Ministerial Code says: “the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained.”
The Home Secretary’s letter to the Education Secretary is in response to Cabinet correspondence and circulated to the Extremism Taskforce. It was written and sent by the Home Secretary on June 3, apparently after and in response to the Home Office being made aware of the hostile briefing from the Education Secretary. It was briefed to journalists on the same day and published on the Home Office website in the early hours of 4 June. It remained on the Home Office website for 4 days.
It appears that the Home Secretary wrote this letter intending to publish it. Did she authorise the release of the letter? Is that in breach of the Ministerial Code? Given that the Home Secretary then allowed the letter to remain on the website for 4 days, is that also a breach of the Ministerial Code?
What action have you taken in response to a breach of the Ministerial Code by one of your most senior Cabinet ministers? Will the Home Secretary also be apologising or are some Ministers exempt from enforcement of the Ministerial Code?
Alongside this, Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs select committee, has written to May demanding “a full explanation of what has happened” and announcing that the committee “will in due course question her about these matters.”
But while it is May who is under the greatest pressure, Gove faces the challenge of responding in the Commons tomorrow to Ofsted’s 21 inquiries into the alleged infiltration of Birmingham schools by extremists. While the battle-hardened Education Secretary is likely to put in a typically defiant performance, the more difficult task will be reconciling his commitment to fighting Islamism with his commitment to school autonomy.