Will Michael Gove Go All the Way to No 10?

Michael Gove said he would never stand for the Tory leadership. But Iain Martin wrote, in 2012: "Perhaps he will be able to overcome his fear . . . Those who care about the future of this country should hope so: the Tories need their Iron Laddie and so do we."

Michael Gove said he would never stand for the Tory leadership. But Iain Martin wrote, in 2012: “Perhaps he will be able to overcome his fear . . . Those who care about the future of this country should hope so: the Tories need their Iron Laddie and so do we.”

In The Iron Lady there is a moment when Margaret Thatcher (as played by Meryl Streep) decides that she is going to stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party. If none of her colleagues has the gumption to do what needs doing, then she will do it. 

Can Michael Gove ever imagine himself making such a decision? Will he run at some point?

“No, I’m constitutionally incapable of it. There’s a special extra quality you need that is indefinable, and I know I don’t have it. There’s an equanimity, an impermeability and a courage that you need. There are some things in life you know it’s better not to try.”

It looks as though the Iron Laddie is not for turning. His growing band of supporters will have to apply a lot of pressure when the moment comes. 

A little over a year ago it would have seemed rather outlandish, or at least very premature, to ask the Education Secretary questions about his leadership prospects. He didn’t have any. Then, he was one of the coalition’s earliest casualties and his friends feared for his future. An opening bombardment by the pugilistic Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow education spokesman immediately after the 2010 general election, had done Gove considerable damage. His department (which under Labour had sprawled to cover children, schools and families until Gove restored its title and focus on education) was notoriously nightmarish to manage. Many Department for Education (DfE) officials are not naturally sympathetic to his worldview and some were alleged to have exposed him to ridicule.

Gove compares it, tongue in cheek, to being first ashore on D-Day. He cites his famous fellow-Scot Lord Lovat and his piper on June 6, 1944:

“Ed Balls had rigged the explosive devices on the beach. So he knew that the moment we arrived there were certain things that were going to explode. He had ramped up spending in some areas that we were going to have to pull back on, and he knew that when we did there would be a media storm.”

But Gove, with difficulty, withstood the heavy fire coming from Labour. “If you’re first ashore, you’re also first up onto the cliffs and then out into open country.”

Since then his advances have been impressive. What was at the time of the election supposed to be his flagship policy — free schools — has subsequently been rather eclipsed by a plethora of other initiatives. Free schools are new institutions opened by parents or teachers, free of local education authority control. Best known is the writer Toby Young’s free school in Hammersmith, offering a classical education; it is nine times oversubscribed. There are 23 others up and running and more are on the way, including one in Wandsworth under Gove’s protégé (and Standpoint columnist) Katharine Birbalsingh; but although they are very worthwhile the expansion of academies is much the bigger deal.

The academy programme, begun under New Labour, removes schools from local authority control and gives heads much greater autonomy. Breaking the grip of local authorities has long been one of the aims of reformers who want to dismantle the post-1960s consensus of the education establishment by liberating schools from that mindset and creating an explosion in the diversity of supply. The government thinks that it is on target for more than 70 per cent of the country’s 3,100 secondary schools to have academy status by 2015. This policy looks like a reform that will be irreversible by the time of the next election.

The academies run by the charity ARK produced an extraordinary set of results in January. Take Walworth Academy in South London: in 2009 only 45 per cent of pupils achieved five GSCEs at Grade A to C. By last year it was 69 per cent.

The launch of the English Baccalaureate — which was derided by the Left on its launch — is also having an impact, say Gove’s advisers. It is designed to ensure children take a solid clutch of at least five traditional subjects at GCSE: English, maths, a foreign language, history or geography, and a science. This is forcing schools to shift resources towards proper academic subjects and away from less rigorous fields of study to ensure their pupils attain the new award.

The education secretary has also appointed the inspirational inner-city headmaster Sir Michael Wilshaw to run the schools inspectorate Ofsted, where he has set about redefining the rules of engagement. Too many schools labelled “outstanding” are not, he says. And the designation “satisfactory” has been given to many institutions that, sadly, are anything but. For the first time since Chris Woodhead in the 1990s, we have a chief inspector who is putting the fear of God into the education establishment.  

In addition, Gove has started to find his own voice, delivering a series of speeches on school standards where he has used the E-words (elitism and excellence). A good press has resulted.

Education is turning into one of the government’s success stories, while elsewhere it is under a great deal of pressure from the flatlining condition of the economy and its botched attempts to reform the health service. The battle he is fighting with his Liberal Democrat colleague Vince Cable over control of universities is proof of his growing confidence.

Gove has sensibly presented his efforts as a continuation of New Labour’s public service reforms rather than a year-zero revolution. Labour’s shadow education secretary, the third since the election, is the Blairite Stephen Twigg. The Labour leadership is shifting itself into a position where it can take some of the credit for a reform programme that it knows will be  popular with parents. The trade unions, who hate Gove, are a different matter: “The real opposition to what we’re doing lies there,” he says.

That Gove is actually winning is in danger of being taken for granted by Conservatives and others who want to see dramatic reform and substantial improvement in the education system in England and Wales. But he is winning, and it matters. How does it feel?

“It is certainly better than the alternative. I have been helped by the fact that I’m doing what David Cameron wants. My instincts on education are his. The Lib Dems have moved to a much better position on education and the Blair era people like Andrew Adonis want to help us.”

We are meeting in Marylebone on a cold Friday afternoon in early February, in the corner bar of one of London’s oldest hotels. An open fire blazes and Gove has his bags packed for the journey out of London for the weekend. Chris Huhne has resigned as Energy Secretary just a few hours before, in order to face trial with his former wife. We briefly discuss the phenomenon of cabinet careers cut short and the fickleness of politics. This government, not yet two years old, is getting through ministers at quite a rate. The Liberal Democrat Treasury minister David Laws resigned in May 2010 and the Tory Defence Secretary Liam Fox followed last October.

Gove says he wants to stay at education until the election to see his reforms through, and barring unforeseen disasters that seems to be very much Cameron’s intention. The pair are friends and Gove is part of the metropolitan modernising gang, the socially liberal Notting Hill set, that took over the Conservative leadership in 2005. But he can think for himself.

Might he be able to persuade Cameron to look again at introducing more selection? What was good enough for David Cameron and Boris Johnson (Eton), George Osborne (St Paul’s), Nick Clegg (Westminster) and Michael Gove (Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen) should surely be good enough for bright children from poor and modest backgrounds?

“[Cameron] is a classic Tory, but also a radical meritocrat. But he doesn’t believe in academic selection. What he wants to see in state schools are the kinds of things that people pay money for — proper uniforms, classical subjects rigorously taught, and for teachers to be respected.”

However, not more selection, it seems.

“As long as the coalition lasts I don’t think there is any room for manoeuvre. I don’t think the Liberal Democrats would countenance any form of selection. Selection is an incendiary subject in England. My view is that it’s better to avoid it because you can make much more progress in other areas. Selection is not a necessary condition of having a successful education system.”

Gove says there is a “shadow” hanging over selective education because of the way in which it was implemented. It has left behind, he says, a fear on the part of many that under such a system only a quarter of children can achieve anything and the rest are written off.

Perhaps that is false public perception, but isn’t the government’s approach, while welcome, ultimately inadequate because it relies on the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats? It doesn’t do enough to catapult the bright child from a poor background into a truly elite school and environment where he or she will be taught to compete on equal terms with their contemporaries from Eton.

Take such a child born in difficult circumstances in Moss Side or in Tottenham and living at the extremes. Rather than giving him or her a better education in an improved comprehensive or academy, why not select them for the chance to go to a top school, from where they stand a chance of getting in to the best universities and then reaching the summit of one of the great professions?

That was what happened after the war. The great wave of social mobility that swept through British institutions and business in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s had its origins in the academic successes of the grammar school boys and girls born in the 1940s and ’50s. That generation is now retired or retiring, and they are being replaced by those who went to the best independent schools. In this way comprehensives have had the opposite effect to that intended by their progressive advocates (who were often privately educated). Arguably it is Britain’s greatest postwar public policy disaster, from quite a long list. 

Gove agrees with the thrust of the analysis but clearly thinks we advocates of selection are missing the point.

“The child that you’ve mentioned will nowadays probably have been blighted long before the age of 11. There are children born in homes where there is drug abuse and domestic violence, and they may turn up at school already with speech and language problems. And then if they end up in the wrong primary school they won’t even be taught to read and write properly. But there are schools that I’ve visited, that are all-ability comprehensives that have taken children like that and turned them around.”

He cites children from academies he has visited recently, the sons and daughters of single mothers who are heading off to study at Oxford and Cambridge. “Look, at the moment I think we’re at the peak of social immobility in Britain. It’s not just the judiciary and around the Cabinet table, it is in music, in the new generation of actors and in sport. And of course one of the places you’ll find the most public school boys is in the Guardian editorial conference. I hope that thanks to the reforms we’ve introduced the next Guardian editor but three will be a comprehensive school boy or girl. Will it happen in my lifetime?” This last point, about the Guardian, is accompanied by a booming laugh. Gove’s public image is still that of a rather straight-backed geek, the swottish refugee from journalism who isn’t natural leadership material, whereas in the flesh he combines impeccable manners with a playful sense of humour. If he can find a way of communicating that warmth to a wider audience, then he may yet lead.

His friend David Cameron is not well-disposed to the idea of going on and on as Tory leader and if the prime minister wins the next election it is highly unlikely he would choose to fight another. That raises the likelihood of a Conservative leadership contest in only five or six years’ time. Boris Johnson and George Osborne are both determined to take over from Cameron and bubbling under the surface is a new generation of Tory MPs from the excellent intake at the general election. Others have their ambitions too.

But some of Gove’s colleagues are warming to the idea of his succeeding, mainly because his growing achievement in education elevates him above the ministerial crowd. “I hope he is lying when he says he doesn’t ever want to be leader,” says one of the new Tory intake. “What is so exciting about Michael Gove is that he isn’t managerial. He’s fighting and winning a big battle in the culture war with the Left.”

Indeed, his reforms are not only going to be transformational, but they speak to a wider cultural hunger for an abandonment of low standards and declining expectations. This resonates particularly strongly when Britain is in the middle of an economic crisis and needs to raise its game dramatically if it hopes to recover.

Patience Wheatcroft, a journalist and now Conservative peer, worked with Gove at The Times: “His views were not always predictable but were always expressed with amazing fluency and, generally, with great wit. He was editing the opinion pages when I was writing a weekly column and he was a delight to work for: encouraging, constructive and unfailingly polite. His move into politics has been truly impressive. There is obviously a steely core which enabled him to get through the early battles he had at the education department. I think he is helped by a belief that he really can improve the education that is offered. I can see him getting to the very top.”

Even a Tory MP who has considerable doubts can now envisage the possibility of Gove in No 10: “I can see it. I think there was a question mark about his political courage, which he’s answered in the way he dealt with the difficult first few months as education secretary. But he looks a little odd to be leader, perhaps, and he is notoriously disorganised.”

The newspaper columns by Gove’s wife, the Times journalist Sarah Vine, certainly bear out that last observation. The education secretary is portrayed on a weekly basis as a serial incompetent on the domestic front who has a great deal of trouble parking his own car.

“I never regarded Michael as a future prime minister, although I like him immensely,” says a Tory contemporary and fellow moderniser. “Yet he is filling out in office and becoming a very serious figure. Getting a few victories can change how people are perceived. Remember that in the early 1970s people didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher as a leader but she had ideas and drive. Michael has both.”

On leaving Oxford, Gove was turned down for a job at the Conservative Research Department for suffering an apparent deficit of both qualities. The then director, Robin Harris, thought him insufficiently Conservative and not political enough.

He ran into Harris, the author of a new landmark history of the Conservatives, recently. He thinks Harris’s book “superb” (it is), but says the strong criticisms of the Tory modernisers contained in the final chapter were an inevitable lapse from history into comment. It is a typically polite way of Gove saying that he thinks the book begins well but deteriorates the closer it gets to contemporary events.

There is a danger (“I’m sure Robin wouldn’t do this,” he says) in viewing Thatcher’s leadership on fast-forward, as though she never made compromises or mistakes. However, he likes the current vogue for enthusiasm about her achievements that is apparent in Harris’s book and in more popular terms in the reaction to the release of The Iron Lady.

“The reason that she is the first prime minister since Churchill that it is possible to make a film about is that what she did was heroic. You can make whatever judgments you like about other prime ministers, that Macmillan was artful and Blair was charismatic. But she was heroic.”

Gove still strongly defends the Cameroon moderniser analysis: that many voters had come to distrust Conservative motives, and that insufficient attention was paid by the party to improving public services.

But he always was a strange kind of Notting Hill Tory. He is a foreign policy neoconservative, not in the way in which it is hinted that George Osborne is in private, but in a full-throated and very public way. About as pro-American and Atlanticist as it is possible to be without actually wrapping himself in the stars and stripes, Gove sees foreign policy in terms of freedom and the defence of civilisation against tyranny.

He is, of course, a good friend of Standpoint and sits on the magazine’s advisory board. Gove describes himself as “not a fan of languid Conservatism”. Perhaps for that reason he finds it easier to choose Conservative heroes who were American.

“Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln. Roosevelt believed in reform, competition, animal spirits and national greatness. He wasn’t afraid to take on vested interests, whether they were the trusts, cartels or the coalitions of the comfortable. He recognised also that it was the concentration of power that was holding back American growth, that these interests were blocking the growth of small businesses. This comes back to one of the things that I dislike about the European Union, and indeed the CBI. The EU creates regulations that are adopted by large companies, on the basis that they have large compliance arms that can implement them to create barriers of entry to smaller firms.”

The first Roosevelt is an interesting choice. It is curious that his name is mentioned so infrequently in the current climate. Teddy Roosevelt was the great trust-buster who took on the monopolistic giants of American business such as JP Morgan and Standard Oil in the name of aiding consumers and restraining arbitrary power.

There is a strain of thinking there that Gove should develop and pass on to a confused Treasury which cannot make up its mind what to do. One moment it wants to join in the popular wave of banker-bashing, which dangerously has spread beyond abuse of bad bankers such as Fred Goodwin into other areas of the economy. The next minute Osborne tries to extol the virtues of enterprise.

The Cameroons did very little thinking about economics, essentially because they thought it a settled subject until the crash took them by surprise. An updated Rooseveltian analysis could make sense of much of Britain’s current discontent. Punishing monopolistic behaviour while unleashing more competition to liberate the consumer is a way of popularising the revolutionary idea that markets, when they are allowed to work, serve the many and not the few.

Gove cites the example of competition in airlines: “When I was explaining to Steve Hilton that I was going off to the States, he said: ‘What are you flying? Don’t fly British Airways, they are the fat cats. Fly Branson, he is the upstart. We are on the side of the upstarts.’ So I’ll be flying Virgin.”

Keen Gove-watchers will know that a lifelong fear of flying has been thought a block on his ambitions. An inability to get on a plane ruled him out of many of the top jobs in government, but — rather in the manner of the future George VI in The King’s Speech — he has now conquered his fear. Who knows? Perhaps at some point he will also be able to overcome his fear of standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Those who care about the future of this country should hope so: the Tories need their Iron Laddie and so do we. 

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