It was the job he had always craved, under the prime minister he had backed from the very beginning. But last week Michael Gove was relieved from command of England's schools, and shunted to the parliamentary backwater of the whip's office. David Cameron's old friend simply had to go after starting one too many fights.
It seems a long time now since the modernising Gove of opposition would perch tieless on the Late Review sofa, and fizz about every novel or film, so long as it was not too downbeat or dark. The young Cameron swore to "let sunshine win the day", and nobody beamed the optimistic, inclusive rays of compassionate Conservatism quite like Gove.
Yet just a few years later, he was the most divisive figure in the coalition: it was not merely the unions expressing no confidence, but also the school heads and Lib Dem colleagues, with whom he had once got on especially well. One poll this week rated him as the most unpopular of several big Tory names. Among teachers specifically, YouGov reported this year that, where the Conservatives had been one point ahead of Labour in 2010, under Gove's watch they had fallen 41 points behind. Similar private polling has been reported as prompting Tory campaign chief Lynton Crosby to demand that Gove go.
So what changed? Not Gove's manners which, by every account, are as impeccable as ever. He instinctively holds open the door for even lowly officials, baffling civil servants drilled in Whitehall's hierarchical protocols. In conversations with acquaintances, the word "polite" never stops popping up.
But as soon as I press on how this charming man could have caused such offence, every point becomes contested. He is, I am told by some, "intensely kind" and "loyal". Others say he is "utterly ruthless", has a "voracious" thirst for knowledge, but also an appetite for fixing the facts; that he always has an open mind, and yet also that he is an unbending ideologue. I hear, too, about a populist with a weakness for the soaps, and also an elitist who does not just quote Voltaire in cabinet, but does so in French.
Courtesy aside, difference emerges as the only constant. "He's got at least two sides to him," says one friendly voice; others – more hostile – speak variously of "Jekyll and Hyde" and "essential contradictions".
The boy raised by adoptive parents of relatively modest means in Aberdeen certainly projects veneration for learning. Even Labour's Tristram Hunt, who shadowed him until this week, concedes: "He's got real interest in schools." Hunt's complaint is merely that he "overapplies his own life story to the totality of education".
After his father's fish-processing business, which had been profitable enough to pay the fees for the local private school, fell on hard times, Gove remained at Robert Gordon's college only because of a scholarship. With a bookish "young fogey" style already formed, he pressed on to Oxford, before heading home to be a reporter at the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Despite doubts, he went on strike with colleagues there. Later he explained that having joined a union, one "should generally respect the rules and the quirks of decision-making". That is, he felt scabbing would have be been impolite.
Next, he landed a job at the BBC and made for London, where he eventually found his natural home at the Times. One Fleet Street hand recalls a "pleasant, emollient figure" on the fringes of Tory circles, "more thoughtful and less privileged than most".
But already, some asked "what lurked under the surface", not least because of the young writer's choice of subject for a biography. Michael Portillo was not then the modernising metrosexual he would become, but the most prominent of John Major's rightwing "bastards". Gove's eulogising subtitle was "the future of the right".
At the Times, Gove rose without treading on toes. He was, say colleagues, "a great guy, a super-smart guy", with "friends across the spectrum". As columnist, comment editor and news editor, he was "popular, personable, unflappable". Yet this inclusive, winning style around the office always went hand-in-hand with strident, polemical writing.
As brokering replaced bombing in Northern Ireland, most people in Britain were relieved, but Gove pamphleteered for an alternative strategy of "resolute security action". He retained an anachronistic feeling for "Greater Britain". After 9/11 he sometimes wrapped up fervent support for Blair-Bush crusades in the modern parlance of liberal interventionism, and sometimes lapsed into an older discourse. In one sweeping column, he hailed the 1704 capture of Gibraltar "as an opening chapter in democracy's vindication", noted "profound echoes" with today's struggles against autocrats in the Muslim world, and even suggested that "far-sighted" Spaniards might learn to see Britain's Iberian outpost as the rock on which western success was built.
Columnists are employed to grab interest rather than decide things, but Gove's stridency on world affairs survived his 2005 move into parliament. In Celsius 7/7, published the next year, he likened fighting Islamism to fighting the Nazis, defended America's bloody operation in the Iraqi city of Falluja and produced a chapter on Israel which, the Telegraph noted, "could have been dictated by that country's ministry of information". But in domestic affairs, these were the years in which I remember Gove saying: "The question is just how 'liberal', how 'compassionate' and how 'modern' can our Conservatism be?"
After Cameron's education spokesman David Willetts criticised grammar schools in terms that offended the party, Gove landed his dream portfolio. Education was such a preoccupation, a friend says, that his original plan was to "open a cut-price private school, with top-notch teaching but few frills". The idea was to extend the sort of education Gove had enjoyed to more pupils from similar squeezed middle homes. But – the friend insists – he settled on politics because it reached into more schools, and right down to the bottom of the heap.
Gove did not much alter Willetts' policy, but instead of talking about "new schools entering the maintained sector", he talked about "free schools", winning many more column inches. He was a shoo-in for education secretary after the election, but immediately took to Andrew Marr's sofa to declare that he would happily forgo his cabinet seat to make space for Lib Dems, suggesting David Laws could do the job well.
Four years on, however, Laws, by then Gove's deputy, would publicly attack his boss for undermining the schools inspectorate, and a briefing war with Nick Clegg would turn the coalition's schools lunches policy into a dog's dinner.
While the shriller, more partisan side of Gove remained hidden in parliament, it was apparent immediately inside his department. He mistrusted officials who had worked too closely with Labour, and moved rapidly moved partisans into notionally apolitical roles. The departmental head of news, Caroline Wright, and head of communications, Lee Bailey, were packed off, while James Frayne was brought in from Westbourne, a public affairs firm steeped in Tory connections. A total of £500,000 in public money was funnelled to the New Schools Network, a tiny outfit headed up by a former aide. Finally, hand-picked appointees were turned into official speechwriters – freeing up an adviser post for Dominic Cummings.
Intelligent, blunt and inclined to regard those he has to work with as obstacles, Cummings was initially blocked from entering government by Cameron's now-jailed press chief Andy Coulson. But once the hacking scandal forced Coulson out, Cummings was in, bringing – many say – the combative side of Gove to the fore. The education establishment would slowly become "the blob", an amorphous monster that had to be beaten back.
But all this took time: the early Gove months had been "continuity Blairism", picking up where the man he called "the Master" had been held back by Labour MPs. The Academies Act sped up the conversion of schools' status, and Gove rushed it through to royal assent by July 2010. That summer, observers were bewitched by the novelty of coalition, not asking awkward questions of policy, so this proved deft management. While Andrew Lansley's NHS plans remained mired in parliamentary controversy into the mid-term, Gove had by then turned most secondaries into academies.
Despite Gove's enthusiasm for reading and seminars, from the beginning there was concern about making policy by anecdote – visits to individual schools, officials say, weighed far more than statistics. The schools becoming academies were far from random ("outstanding" institutions enjoyed special freedoms to convert; failing schools were sometimes forced), so the department proposed, and identified funds for, a systematic evaluation. Gove, however, said no, insisting mere "monitoring" of headline results was sufficient. One insider felt that this amounted to running an "uncontrolled experiment which would ruin children's lives" if it didn't come off. A ticking off from the UK statistics chief, Sir Andrew Dilnot, for an egregious misreading of the OECD education league tables also suggested a self-serving approach to evidence.
But this is a common enough failing at Westminster, and was not enough to bring down Gove's big political tent. He still thrust former Labour minister Andrew Adonis's book on education into friends' hands, and said: "This is everything I believe." His academies may not have been tightly targeting extra resources on poorer areas, as Adonis's had, but such distinctions were for the specialists. For casual observers, probably including Blair himself, who reportedly slipped in for meetings, Gove was finishing Tony's mission.
And yet away from the spotlight, a powerbase was being built. A fundamental sweep of the department's board, critics said, involved bringing in wealthy businessmen and ideologues; the former permanent secretary Sir David Bell attacked Gove for "believing his own hype". In parallel came other small signs of the old polemicist reasserting himself over "Mike the polite" – such as tweeted slights on the Observer's political editor, Toby Helm, which came from a seemingly official @ToryEducation account. In mid-2012, Gove's office briefed the Daily Mail about plans, never mentioned to any Lib Dem, to "bring back O-levels". The only new substance in the story was that "less able" children were to be barred from sitting the papers, siphoned off to something more like the old CSE, to which – it was plain – no thought had been given. The minister who condemned historic indulgence of sink schools was in effect proposing to deny struggling pupils the chance to earn any respected qualifications at all.
This certainly broke from the agenda of Adonis's book, and it marked a decisive break, too, with an ambushed Clegg, who immediately got his objections into the media. As with another Gove scheme for a single exam board, and his ludicrously prescriptive first draft of the history curriculum, the O-level idea was summarily dropped. Some admire Gove's free-spirited willingness to try out ideas, and then ditch them; his willingness to confess plainly to the Commons that he had gone "a bridge too far" was certainly refreshing.
But it does not explain why a clever man would come up with the daft O-level plan in the first place.
Relations with Clegg have never recovered. It is true the Lib Dem leader has his own reasons to make an enemy of Gove. Party research on winning back lost voters reportedly concluded with two words – "fight Gove". But unlike Laws, who can still rub along with his departmental boss in private, no one thinks the Lib Dem leader is faking the fury that descends whenever Gove's name crops up. He can abide neither the wild-eyed idealism, nor the tendency to fuzz over the detail in cutting deals. Besides, it's hard to accept Gove was the hapless victim of Lib Dem interest when he was waging so many other wars.
Take the row about Ofsted, which flared up at the start of this year. Gove called time on Sally Morgan's time as chair, three years after appointing the former Blair adviser while still in a less partisan mood. He first expressed an interest in replacing her with one Tory donor, Theodore Agnew, and more recently with another, Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross – who had had a past brush with financial scandal.
If Ofsted came to be seen as a Tory inspectorate, which seemed a real danger when Great Smith Street began whispering against the real boss, the chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, then the whole proclaimed Blair-Gove mission of imposing objective rigour would have been in trouble. But after Wilshaw said publicly that he was "spitting blood", Gove – in an increasingly rare conciliatory mode – backed off. More often, friends say, the man with impeccable manners is "drawn to the fight".
More fateful restlessness soon showed across a broader canvas. In autumn 2012, before Cameron had promised a European referendum, Gove weighed in unhelpfully, letting the Mail on Sunday know that, as things stood, he would be voting to get out of the EU. The prime ministerial headache here would not be the last.
In the row about the alleged Islamisation of Birmingham schools, rumours about children tutored in extremism were bound to grip a man with "clash of civilisations" tendencies. Gove brought in not an education professional, an official or a judge, but the former anti-terror police chief Peter Clarke, to investigate. Last week, the Guardian revealed that Clarke had duly produced a report written in dramatic terms.
In a lunch at the Times, Gove let his former colleagues in on a row about the definition of "extremism" he had been having with Theresa May. She wanted a narrow focus on individuals posing a security threat, where Gove wanted to take on ideas, or as he floridly put it, "to drain the swamp" before "the crocodiles reach the boat". Where ministers ordinarily shrink from lambasting civil servants who can't answer back, Gove laid into the Home Office security chief, Charles Farr. An alligator of a row soon gobbled up May's adviser, but it was Gove forced by Cameron to say sorry.
Gove was increasingly unguarded in his approach towards the PM himself. They had always been close. Gove lacked the wealth of the rest of the Notting Hill set, but with natural wit had become the court jester of the gang. Cameron – whose own children are at state primaries – would not have objected to Gove's well-publicised decision in March to send his daughter to a state secondary school, although a piece by Gove's wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, explaining the choice and stating that the private sector was "about snobbery", may have grated with the old Etonian. A few days later, Gove talked to the FT about the "ridiculous" concentration of old boys from just one school, comparing Eton's "preposterous" contemporary grip at the Tories to Lord Salisbury's nepotistic hold a century before. Gove must have known this would rile a prime minister often caricatured as a toff.
Then, last month, Cummings publicly attacked the ineffectual "guy in No 10, watching Netflix with a glass of red in his paw". There is no suggestion Gove encouraged this. But Cameron well knew that Cummings had long been Gove's unpolished right hand. Now an enraged PM was dubbing him a "career psychopath". The spat can't have helped.
Although friends and foe alike ascribe consistency of purpose to Gove's record, I'm inclined to think the legacy will be as contradictory as the man himself. He has established a "new normal" of academy governance, but it is still entirely unclear what this means.
The rhetoric has been about "liberation", but the model of private contract, between Whitehall and individual schools, will arguably allow future secretaries of state unprecedented power to impose personal whims, by threatening to cut off funding. Gove's own dotty forays into what is taught – the stress, for instance, on "our island story" – often sounded very controlling, and yet they never counted for much, seeing as academies don't have to follow the curriculum. By contrast, in the Birmingham row, Gove threatened to cut off some academies' funding, giving the first real glimpse of how their status can be used to impose central control.
On selection, the deepest fear of anti-academy campaigners, Gove has likewise played it both ways. In December, he refused to license a new grammar school in Kent while – with characteristic ambiguity – suggesting this refusal was merely a technicality. In the end, though, politicians are judged by what they do, rather than what they say, and on selection, as on Ofsted, he ultimately shrank from breaking with the Blair-Adonis model. The shriller Govian sound and gunfire will, I suspect, leave little mark in the end.
Which brings thoughts back to the question of why this most courteous of individuals should scrap so much. Along with the standard politician's urge to be liked, there is, I think, a second yearning – the columnist's itch to be interesting. There are some times when ultra-modernising Conservatism may sound arresting, and others when reactionaries catch the spotlight. But like the twin pictures of Malcolm X and Margaret Thatcher on Gove's office wall, combat can be relied on to hold attention.
Making endless war on those you must work with, though, is no strategy for governance. For teachers, Gove's regular praise for their individual efforts has long been drowned out by rantings against the "blob". War without end is also a recipe for confusion. After too many hours of asking associates what they think of Gove, I'm left scratching my head. And so, I suspect, after last week, is the guy with the glass of red in his paw.
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