Coalition rows are par for the course. Some are fake, designed to boost the standing of the Ministers concerned with their own parties’ activists. And some are real, the product of deep disagreement between them over policy. The latter sometimes compromise the Government’s reputation for competence, but seldom do lasting damage its ability to govern: the departments concerned simply dust themselves down and carry on. Is the Department of Education now an exception?
The Observer splashes today on a report headed: “Gove’s ‘lunatic’ £400 million raid to rescue his free schools vision”. The nub of the story is that the Education Secretary is funding those schools with the help of that sum from the Basic Need Fund, which aims to ensure that there are sufficient school places available for the children who need them. The Education Secretary believes that this is the right thing to do. David Laws thinks the opposite: he is the second most senior Minister in the department and has the right to attend Cabinet.
We know about this disagreement in detail. The paper says that “the Lib Dems confirmed highly damaging leaked information from a senior government source”. This source brands Gove a “zealot”. A few paragraphs later, it morphs into a “Coalition source”, having been described in the interim as a “Coalition insider”. There is a point to this would-be Holmesian exercise – namely, that if the Observer’s source was not the Liberal Democrat Minister it was someone remarkably familiar with his thinking. There are colourful noises off in the Mail on Sunday, which hosts claims by Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former special adviser, about Nick Clegg, Mrs Clegg and a book charity.
All this represents an inter-departmental feud as well as an inter-coalition row – with the Observer as the Liberal Democrats’ repeated vehicle of choice. It is therefore different in nature from, say, last week’s quarrel over knife crime, which involved another government department. Perhaps the Education Ministry sails smoothly on despite the set-to between its two most senior Ministers, though Gove presumably misses his former deputy, Nick Gibb, who was unwisely swapped for Laws. He must surely regret, too, his early enthusiasm for working with the latter’s party – stretched so far at one point as to suggest that voters should back the Liberal Democrats in Hull during local elections.
Be that as it may, Laws’s position is absurd. Maybe we have become so used to the briefings war at the Education Department as no longer to appreciate how irreconcilable it is with orderly government. But it is a energy-sapping distraction at the least for all those concerned from the work that the taxpayer funds them to do – and goodness knows that there is enough of it to go round: the Sunday Telegraph today carries further claims about the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham. Very simply, someone has to be in charge at the Education Department – and that someone must be the Secretary of State. If his deputy doesn’t accept this, he should consider his position.