How David Cameron the conciliator lost patience with warring ministers

According to the Downing Street grid, last week was supposed to be dominated by two set-piece events.

The first, the Queen's speech on Wednesday, would look forward, laying out the government's legislative programme up to the next election and showing a prime minister still full of ideas. The second would look back with pride to events of 70 years ago, the D-Day landings of June 1944.

But instead, coverage of the Queen's speech and, to a lesser extent, the anniversary of D-Day was eclipsed by the antics of two of his most senior cabinet ministers, Michael Gove and Theresa May. The couple had decided to put their own personal and bitter disagreement over the hugely sensitive issue of policy on combating Muslim extremism in schools into the public domain, in a flagrant breach of collective cabinet responsibility. On Thursday, as David Cameron attended the D-Day commemorations, he was visibly irritated still to have to be answering questions on the unseemly dispute instead of honouring British heroism on the Normandy beaches.

Saturday night's statement from Downing Street was the prime minister's angry response. It showed a side of Cameron that has rarely been on display in the first four years of his premiership. To date, he has tended to smooth over disagreements through conciliation, behind the scenes. That is in his nature. This time he showed that when his blood is up, he can bite back hard so it hurts.

There are several reasons why Cameron was so angry, over and above the fact that the row wrecked his best-laid plans. Few issues are more sensitive than policy on combating extremism. That Gove and May disagreed would have been fine (they do have genuine differences of opinion), if their argument had been kept private. But instead Gove briefed his old employers at the Times about his irritation with the Home Office's approach, and May hit back, allowing her adviser to make public a letter to the education secretary, in effect accusing him of having sat on the problem for four years. Governments can't work like that in any policy area, let alone on this one.

Cameron admires Gove and they are friends. But at the same time he has become irritated with his education secretary for rushing through policies so fast (often briefing them to the press first) that they have to be abandoned, and for picking fights that have no upside for anyone. His recent spats with the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg over academies, school meals and the funding of free schools have tested patience in No 10.

Then there is the leadership. There is nothing a prime minister finds more unnerving than minsters planning for who comes next. Gove insists he does not want to be prime minister. May certainly does have her eye on the top job, and that irritates Gove, and probably Cameron too. Relations between May and Gove were wrecked last year when Gove reprimanded May during a cabinet meeting for a speech that appeared to lay out her leadership stall. The poison in their relationship has never been drawn since.

Gove is said to want George Osborne to replace Cameron, but in order to do so he has to see off May. Leadership plotting is unsettling for a prime minister. Overconfident ministers are a liability; divided cabinets lose elections. Ill-discipline gives a bad example, as Gove often preaches about schools. For all those reasons Cameron finally lost his patience and cracked the whip.

Powered by article was written by Toby Helm, political editor, for The Observer on Sunday 8th June 2014 00.06 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010