By Paul Goodman
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Yesterday morning, Michael Gove was the monarch of all he surveyed in the department over which he presides. Supported by dedicated and expert Conservative Ministers – Nick Gibb, who covered schools; Tim Loughton, who dealt with adoption and fostering, and John Hayes, who has made a success of the apprenticeships programme – the Education Secretary was the Tory flagship Cabinet Minister, surpassing his colleagues in delivering results. Half of all secondary schools are now academies and over 50 free schools open this month. Mr Gove has somehow pulled off the trick of building on Labour's academies legacy while wedging explosives into the foundations of the left's almost 50 year-long educational monopoly over the commanding heights of the state system.
Today, Messrs Gibb and Loughton have been sacked and Mr Hayes has been shuffled. Details of change are not yet complete, but in has come Elizabeth Truss. There is a temptation to see the tentacles of Octopus Osborne everywhere, but they have surely touched this appointment: he and Ms Truss see eye to eye on the need to make it easier for working women to get and stay in the workplace. Her appointment is very good news and Mr Gove will welcome her warmly. However, she will be a more challenging Minister than her predecessor. The Education Secretary has focused his attentions like the proverbial laser beam on schools, and had Sarah Teather, Ms Truss's LibDem predecessor, in his pocket. Ms Truss knows her own mind and will challenge other Ministers if she thinks it necessary. Mr Gove's life is about to get more interesting.
And David Laws's appointment will make it more interesting still. Some of our media colleagues and political friends were baffled yesterday by the hostile reaction of both Tim Montgomerie and I to his appointment to the Department. Why, they exclaimed, Mr Laws's free market instincts are those of a Conservative, and he is up for market-driven and freedom-led schools reform – academies, free schools, the works. Furthermore, the new Minister will undoubtedly be busy elsewhere, since his portfolio of responsibilites include taking up a roving brief across Government (i.e: forming a joint brains trust with Oliver Letwin), wasting his time on the Liberal Democrat mission to scrap Trident and, now, sitting on George Osborne's growth committee. What are you so worried about, our friends asked? Relax. Stay cool. Hang loose.
It is possible to do all three while being sorry to see Mr Gove's junior Minister go. Mr Gibb has a real passion – unusual in the cynical Wesminster Village – for improving the life chances of schoolchildren: he knew his brief inside-out and helped drive radical reform through Parliament. Mr Loughton was admired in the fostering and adoption world, a claim which has been proved this morning by a frenzy of goodbye-don't-cry-wipe-a-tear-baby-dear-from-your-eye tributes on Twitter. Mr Hayes indeed did marvellous work on apprenticeships and delighted team meetings with his learned references to Wordsworth. But there are also grounds for believing that Mr Laws's real talents – I wanted to see him take charge at BIS – are wasted at Education, and that Mr Gove is left weaker rather than stronger by his appointment.
Why? Very simply, because the Education Secretary's reforms depend on a mix of market reform and school independence from below and exam overhaul and professional reform from above: buckets of ink have been spent on whether the combination of freedom below and intervention above can really work. But whether so or not, Messrs Gove and Gibb were in the mutual business of acting from the Department to overhaul the school curriculum, exams and, in particular, teacher training. The Liberal Democrats are not signed up to Mr Gove's vision of replacing GCSEs with a system more like the old O-level one, and most of the party's MPs won't share his enthusiasm for a culture shift among much of the teaching profession. Their views and Mr Laws's may not always coincide. But what is certain is that the Education Secretary has his dream and his junior Minister a real brain and the second won't sit easily with the second.
When in Government, Mrs Thatcher was fond of quoting Matthew 6:24: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love
the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other." There are now two master-minds in the Education Department where there was only one before. As far as Mr Gove is concerned and as Mr Hayes might put it, shades of the prison house begin to close about the growing boy.