Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Axing of Gove: Cameron at his most cowardly

They got their man in the end. Every teacher up and down the country has been rejoicing. Or so we’re led to believe.

Which has always been part of Michael Gove’s problem. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of teachers (they’re usually the head teachers) who have publically backed him and his reforms. Groupthink acts as a natural disinfectant to any would be dissenters.

It would be disingenuous to excuse Gove from some of the opprobrium that has come his way over the past four years.

Pushing through wide-ranging changes is one thing. Selling them to an already sceptical and weary profession is quite another. Gove’s method of flogging his reforms was to go on the attack. Vilifying those who didn’t support them, getting people’s backs up whenever he spoke. He often gave the impression of a man who didn’t care what people thought of him because he was so sure about what he was trying to do.

This obviously didn’t go down well with teachers or many left-leaning public sector types. He has become the pantomime Tory villain. The man who contaminates what’s left of his party’s modernisation project. Not even George Osborne has faced such sustained criticism.

Which is all the more frustrating because Gove has been right from the start in what he’s been doing. And already we can see the benefits.

His vision for education is anything but reactionary. The reactionaries are those who have spent years, even decades, resisting wholesale change to their profession. Content to trudge on as we were, leaving our schools mired in mediocrity, left behind by the Asian powerhouses.

It would be too simplistic and dangerously naïve to believe Gove has been punished more for his delivery than his content. Yes, he could have been a little softer in making his case, trying to win over hearts and minds, but then this isn’t the kind of politician he is. It may not have made much difference either way.

The teaching unions don’t take kindly to any Education Secretary meddling around on their turf. Has there ever been a Secretary of State for Education in recent memory that hasn’t been jeered at the unions’ annual conference? And the spite and anger reserved for a Tory Education Secretary is unique.

Which brings us on to David Cameron and his cowardly decision to demote him. Three explanations have been offered. The first is that Gove simply made far too many enemies. As one of his key allies, Toby Young, put it:

“The reason he has so many enemies is because he's achieved so much. There's no great mystery surrounding why Education Secretaries usually achieve so little and why so few ambitious politicians have coveted the role until now. You're ranged against a vast array of vested interest who will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo. If you try and wrest control of our public education system from them, they're naturally going to do everything in their power to destroy you and, until now, few senior politicians have been willing to take that risk.”

Michael Gove is that type of a politician. A convictionist with a long term vision for where he wants our education system to be in 20 years from now. And conviction politicians tend to get people’s backs up. Our system rewards those who quietly get on with their business, not making a fuss, not causing a scene, whilst issuing bland statements on the way. Quite simply, Gove was in the news far too often for Cameron’s liking.

The second explanation is the fallout from the Trojan Horse affair. It seemed at the time that Theresa May had been damaged more by having her special adviser take the bullet, whilst Gove got away with an apology and a public reprimand. This very public spat, between two of the PM’s biggest hitters, couldn’t have gone down well at number 10. Maybe the embarrassment was the final straw.

A final explanation points to Downing Street’s private polling. It had revealed that Gove had become a liability, in particular, surprise surprise, among teachers.

According to The Times (£) he had become a very public liability:

“In all the focus groups and surveys, Mr Gove achieved the unwanted double of being recognised and disliked by the public. One recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the public could correctly identify him as education secretary, but that 55 per cent thought he was doing badly at the job.

“The picture that emerged of polling in marginal seats was said to be even starker, especially in areas with high numbers of public sector workers.

“By association, the education reforms that were once seen as an electoral asset were becoming “toxic”, according to one senior Conservative.”

What we have is politics at its most cynical. At its most short-termist and poll-obsessed. Never mind what Gove had achieved, never mind what he was going to achieve. The numbers have spoken.

The government needs all the votes it can get. Some have suggested this reshuffle shows Cameron in confident mood ahead of next year. I’d argue it shows the opposite. It shows a man desperately scrambling around for every vote he can get, knowing how close it’s going to be. If it means sacrificing his best minister, so be it.

Yesterday, David Cameron spouted the usual platitudes about what a remarkable politician his friend is, who’ll be doing an important job as Chief Whip.

Cameron is often accused of believing in nothing. We now know that’s not the case. He believes in the findings of a few focus groups who have told him that people who aren’t known for being natural Tories feel a bit affronted.

Where Gove showed conviction, Cameron has shown cowardice. Today, England’s schoolchildren will be worse off.

This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 16th July 2014

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