The New Statesman Cover | The Tory Tide

A first look at this week's magazine.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

2-8 October 2015 issue
The Tory Tide

Featuring

Ian Leslie on the "dangerous character" and risky behaviour of the Conservative radical Michael Gove.

Michael Ashcroft on Jeremy Corbyn's chances and that infamous moment from his Cameron biography.

Tim Wigmore on the resilience of the right across Europe.

Stephen Bush: The Tories are the zombie party - with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory.

George Eaton: Below the surface at the Labour conference, all sides armed themselves for future battles.

 

Plus a Books Special, featuring:

Ali Smith on John Berger, Margaret Atwood on Robert Bringhurst, Rowan Williams on Jeanette Winterson, Erica Wagner on Ted Hughes, Germaine Greer on Shakespeare, John Niven on Morrissey, and Eimear McBride, Blake Morrison, Deborah Levy and more on their favourite experimental fiction.

 

Ian Leslie: The Messianic restlessness of Michael Gove

In a profile for the New Statesman, Ian Leslie argues that, much as he lobbed a grenade into the education establishment with free schools and his reform agenda, Michael Gove is poised to go into combat with the legal profession.

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.

[. . .]

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.

Leslie speaks to teachers and other professionals to understand why Gove was so despised during his time as secretary of state for education.

When I asked [Laura McInerney, the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher] 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."

Friends and colleagues describe the extent of Gove's ambition in his new post as Secretary of State for Justice:

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".

[. . .]

Another of Gove's friends told me, "Michael is an idealist - a dangerous character."

[. . .]

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."

Leslie also explores the mystery of the minister's immaculate manners and his personal life:

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").

He concludes:

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.

 

Michael Ashcroft: Why my Cameron biography wasn't a hatchet job

The NS Diary comes from Lord Ashcroft, who responds to the furore that followed the Daily Mail's publication of extracts from his and Isabel Oakeshott's "unauthorised" biography of David Cameron:

The things one worries about are seldom the things that come to pass. It seems strange now to reflect that, as we prepared to launch Call Me Dave, Isabel Oakeshott and I would sometimes wonder whether our biography of David Cameron was going to get the attention we thought our two years' graft merited.

So, we're not complaining about the deluge of coverage. Like Kim Kardashian's posterior, it almost broke the internet - although the anecdote that caused such a sensation was only a few paragraphs out of 200,000 words and was never presented as fact (rather as a curious tale that could be believed or otherwise). In relating this story there was never any intention to be nasty, or to judge the PM for taking part in such antics - if indeed he did. We all did a few daft things when we were young.

One notion I would contest is that Call Me Dave was planned as a hatchet job. It is nearly 600 pages long, and we went to great lengths to speak to dozens of sources who were both sympathetic and close to the PM; some, inevitably, on condition of anonymity. They gave us a great deal of material that reflects well on him. We wanted to produce a thorough, balanced and impartial biography, and - colourful anecdotes notwithstanding - I think anyone who reads the whole book will agree that this is what we have done. As we make clear, Cameron has much of which to be proud.

The downside of having your book serialised in a newspaper is that you do not get to write the headlines. The Daily Mail gave us a great showing, but "Revenge" is not quite the word I would have chosen to sit above the first day's coverage. Many in Westminster knew that my relationship with Cameron was not as close as it once was, and I wanted to clarify why this was the case: essentially, I believe I was offered a position that never materialised. I was upfront about that in the preface, but what follows that introduction is objective. After all, my co-author, who is a former political editor of the Sunday Times, has no beef with Dave.

 

Tim Wigmore: The resilience of the right 

Tim Wigmore recalls that after the financial crisis reached its peak in 2008, many expected politics to swing to the left in Europe and the Anglosphere - but the change never arrived. He considers why:

One big factor is that the centre left has not been able to answer the question of what it exists for when there is no money left. As management of the economy has become a much more important issue, right-wing parties have benefited because they "are often labelled better economic managers", says Andrew Little, leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. Thomas Hofer, an Austrian political consultant, says: "In times of crises, conservatives might be trusted more, as they are seen to keep an eye on a balanced budget. When there's growth, social democrats are - or were - trusted to spread the wealth."

 [. . .]

The crash has also damaged the left by making voters more insular and defensive, especially towards immigration. Parties of the centre right, meanwhile, "have always been more associated with a rather tougher line on immigration" and so "are likely to do better at elections where it's up in the mix", says the Conservative Party historian Tim Bale. The populist right has been the biggest beneficiary of this shift, attracting working-class people who once voted for left-wing parties but now fear immigration is threatening their livelihoods.

Wigmore concludes:

The best could be yet to come for the right. Across Europe and the Anglosphere populations are ageing. "[This] benefits the right, because voters shift right as they get older," says Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College in London. The "old vote" counts even more because so few young people vote: across Europe last year, only 28 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted in the European parliamentary elections, compared to 51 per cent of those 55 and over. In addition, there is an apparent rightward shift in young people's attitudes. In the UK research shows that the "millennial generation" has moved to the right of its parents in its attitudes to the economy and the state and its confidence in the welfare state.

So much, then, for the idea of the economic crash heralding another dawn of social democracy. Instead, it ushered in an age of the right.

 

Stephen Bush: The Tories are the zombie party - with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

Stephen Bush, editor of the NS's Staggers, argues that although the Conservative Party is "Britain's table-topping team", it doesn't have "any fans".

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: "There's our next [Labour] prime minister." His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

He adds:

[The] Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour's economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of "the mess" left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

Bush concludes:

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons' preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major's trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. Labour's target voters think none of these things. Nor do many current Labour supporters. The table gives the main findings. The first column sets out the views of those who voted for Corbyn to be party leader. The final three columns are taken from a separate survey of more than 10,000 electors. Currently, just over a quarter would vote Labour; a further 20 per cent would consider doing so. To win in 2020, Labour must retain the support of almost all its present supporters and at least half its potential voters.

 

George Eaton: Below the surface at the Labour conference, all sides armed themselves for future battles

In the Politics Column, George Eaton describes the unsettled atmosphere at this year's Labour conference:

At the 1981 Labour conference in Brighton, Neil Kinnock found himself assailed by a young Tony Benn supporter in the lavatory of the Grand Hotel. The future leader was targeted for his refusal to endorse Benn's failed deputy leadership bid. "I beat the shit out of him," Kinnock later recounted. Those who surveyed the scene described seeing "blood and vomit all over the floor".

Before Labour assembled in the same town for its 2015 conference, MPs spoke darkly of their fear of a return to such barbarousness. Jeremy Corbyn's leadership has pitted the party's "Tories" and "Trots" against each other. Yet the week passed without rhetorical or physical fisticuffs. After the election of a leader opposed by more than 90 per cent of MPs, Labour managed a passable impression of unity.

[. . .]

The conference was a bridge between the old world and the new.

But Eaton notes that there were suspicions of a storm behind the calm:

A popular theory in Labour circles is that Corbyn will voluntarily resign after two years, having achieved some internal reforms, and endorse a successor. Lisa Nandy, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, is the name most often mentioned, though she is from the soft left, rather than the leader's harder wing. Those close to Corbyn, however, say that he is "enjoying" the job and is not planning an early departure. This did not prevent speculation in the bars of Brighton about the identity of the next leader. Dan Jarvis, Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna were the names most commonly cited. Corbyn's opponents acknowledge that their task next time will be to unite around one candidate and to back him or her unreservedly.

He concludes:

Next May, the Labour leader will face his first electoral tests in London, Scotland, Wales and England. Some MPs have earmarked this date as the first possible moment to strike. Others warn that this strategy could founder if Corbyn exceeds the low expectations. MPs' greatest fear is that the issue of reselection will rise as they are blamed by the left for any reversals. McDonnell's appeal to former shadow cabinet members to "come back and help us succeed" was interpreted by many as a threat.

Labour emerged from Brighton surprisingly unscathed. But underlying the calm was the fear that, by next year, there will be blood.

 

Plus

Henry Marsh on the Michael Marmot, social inequalities and the health gap.

Will Self: I flew to Guernsey for a walk but ended up playing tax-dodger dodgems.

Sophie McBain on authoritarian Asia and the memoirs of two North Korean dissidents who escaped to China.

Suzanne Moore: I wish I could forget why, on a spring day in New York, I sat on the pavement and wept.

Anna Leszkiewicz interviews this year's Forward Prize-winning poet, Claudia Rankine.