Back in the first half of this decade, when Tories and Lib Dems could still be friends and some of us naively believed Ed Miliband to be a plausible future prime minister, Michael Gove had six portraits in his office, intended to illustrate the nature of his reforming mission at the Department for Education (DfE). The subject of one of those portraits, Margaret Thatcher, was predictable; the others were not. They were, in ascending order of weirdness, Barack Obama, Teddy Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Lenin.
In what one suspects was not a coincidence, Gove’s senior advisor at the time was one Dominic Cummings – a man of whom an anonymous former colleague recently told the Daily Mirror: “He and Gove shared a world view of creative destruction.” This, one suspects, is an attitude that Lenin might have appreciated.
“Dominic always takes it too far,” that quote continues. “He clearly doesn’t give a damn.” Already this week a couple of dozen MPs have been turfed out of the Conservative party, including two former Chancellors, six other former Cabinet ministers, and the man doomed ever to be described as Winston Churchill’s grandson. Cummings’ lack of damns feels like it might go some way to explaining how the government he serves lost its majority.
I bring up Gove’s time at DfE not just because of Lenin, but because that too may tell us something about the mess we’re all in. It was one of the most exciting public service reform programmes this country has witnessed in decades, in roughly the same way it would be exciting to hear a pilot announce that the starboard engine was now on fire and she was going to have to land.
Most ministers make gradualism their watchword, out of fear that the risk of screwing anything up outweighed the rewards of getting your programme through. Gove, though, wanted to reform everything, all at once. In just over four years he scrapped Labour’s multi-billion pound school building programmes; expanded Labour’s academy programme, to take nearly three-quarters of secondaries and nearly half of primaries out of local authority control; introduced “free schools”, publicly-funded new schools started by parents and other non-state actors; and reformed the primary curriculum, GCSEs and A-levels.
This “move fast and break things” strategy came at a cost. Many of those policies are questionable, for practical as well as ideological reasons. At times it felt like the government had gone to war against councils, academics, school leaders and the teaching professional simultaneously, without managing to get parents behind them.
And by 2014, Michael Gove was not only one of the most visible of the coalition’s ministers but also the most hated. In July that year, he was effectively demoted, in what was widely viewed as an attempt to ensure he didn’t cost the Tories votes at the following year’s election.
And yet, if the goal was to achieve and entrench educational revolution, it worked. Asked which of the reforms had endured, one schools expert paused for a second, as if marvelling at my naivety, before saying, emphatically: “All of them.” Cummings achieved what he set out to do. All he had to do in exchange was to torch Michael Gove’s reputation and popularity.
Whether you think Cummings’ goal is to force a no-deal Brexit or merely to trigger an election, it has felt a lot like the same game plan was in effect this week. Popularity doesn’t matter. Convention doesn’t matter. Decency towards colleagues doesn’t matter. Even, in a perverse way, whether the policy works doesn’t matter (“His position is ‘Everything is bad, so it’s better to have your bad version than someone else’s’,” the schools expert says). All that matters is getting that policy over the line – and doing it in such a way that it can’t be easily rolled back.
But there is a key difference between working at the Department for Education and working at Number 10. Michael Gove may not have cared about popularity, but any Prime Minister who wants to win an election does; that surely goes double for one who enjoys public adoration as much as Boris Johnson. Even if Cummings’ strategy works in terms of delivering his preferred policy – far from clear, after the events of the last 48 hours – it may have the side effect of torching the Tory party and its poll ratings in the process.
There may be some people who think this is a good trade off. Perhaps Dominic Cummings, not himself a Tory, is one of them. But I’m not sure the party he works for will agree.