The flame of ambition is seldom quenched within a politician. It can seem to have been snuffed out only suddenly to flare up again. But there is reason to believe that Michael Gove means what he says when he mocks his unsuitability for the Conservative leadership. There is a Team Boris and a Team Osborne, but there is no Team Gove, quietly preparing the ground for a future candidacy. The Education Secretary has admirers and supporters in Fleet Street – on the Times, which he could have edited, and at the Daily Mail, for which his wife, Sarah Vine, writes a column, and at the Spectator. But they don’t extend to most of those who work with him – not when it comes to heading the Party in future, at any rate. One of his best-known allies has been known to sum up Gove’s capacity for the post in a single word: “Hopeless”.
Indeed, the Education Secretary has been dragged into the current crossfire between the Chancellor’s and the Mayor’s camps by a single incident – his reply when asked in the company of Rupert Murdoch, at a dinner in America, who he believed might lead the Party in the future. Gove was already known to support the claims of his friend George Osborne (if his other friend, David Cameron, leaves Downing Street after the next election), so his support for the Chancellor should have come as no surprise to anyone in the Westminster Village.
The Education Secretary’s current fortunes should therefore be detached from the self-reinforcing leadership speculation by anyone who seeks to understand them. There is fashion in politics as well as on catwalks, and Gove is being treated in some quarters as out of it. Snappish with colleagues (and this from “the politest man in politics”); meddling with matters that are none of his business (the First World War commemorations); seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth – that’s to say, charging recklessly at the serried cannonade of the teaching unions.
The explanations offered for the wobble in his standing are unconvincing. The Education Secretary has always stowed an iron first of aggression within the velvet glove of his legendary courtesy – and often used it. His interference in other departments’ business isn’t new, either. Gove has a view on everything, from how to deal with Syria to what to do about minimum alcohol pricing. He has been socking it to the teaching unions, when he thinks it necessary, ever since he was appointed. So what is going on?
One good answer is: less than meets the eye. What goes out of fashion can come back in again, and the Education Secretary will duly recover from his blip. Claims that he is bored with his job are fiercely resisted by his friends, who claim that he is doing the only work in government that he wants to do – and that he would be happy to return to his current post after the next election. “He was in America last week, studying how teachers are assessed,” said one of them. “Michael is completely committed to his work in education reform.”
I think this is true as far as it goes. The Education Secretary has a passion for liberal interventionism abroad and combating Islamist extremism at home, too. (He took a similarly flinty view on republican terror during Northern Ireland’s troubles.) It would be surprising were his eye not to stray to the Foreign and Home Offices from time to time – though not the Treasury: one devotee none the less describes Gove as “functionally innumerate”. But it is true that there is much he wants to do at Education which the Liberal Democrats have blocked – his aspiration to abolish GCSEs, for example.
Perhaps it is Nick Clegg and his party that provide the best means of understanding Gove’s situation. Their protests over his non-reappointment of Baroness Morgan as the Chairman of Ofsted morphed into claims that he wants to stop inspectors highlighting problems with free schools. And the Liberal Democrats’ internal polling that apparently shows Gove’s unpopularity with teachers seems to have resonated more widely than previous evidence of the same. The Education Secretary’s take-no-prisoners style of engagement with voters flouts the Geneva Conventions that usually govern it.
A horrified Anthony Horowitz, formerly a fan, went reeling from an interview with him. “I always defended Michael Gove. Then I met him,” its headline read – in the Spectator, of all places. Today’s Financial Times carries a big profile of the Education Secretary. In the photo that accompanies it, a tense-looking Gove sits hunched in a chair, legs crossed, hands clasped. Where is the familiar rubbery smile? Let me offer my own explanation for these jitters – and, no, it isn’t the departure of his former SpAds, Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoute (who will still be around, in one way or another).
Gove is nothing if not intellectually supple, and can shed his skin so fast that the eye usually misses it. A stern and unbending Tory on the Times during the 1990s, he effortlessly recast himself as a moderniser, only to emerge recently as a Paul Dacre darling. It is true that on some matters he about-turns. At the start of this Parliament, he was a leading voice for co-operation with the Liberal Democrats (his opposition to AV was very muted): since then, he has grown older and wiser. And he has a remarkable capacity for persuasion.
I always feel that his salamander-like eloquence could convince me of a thousand things that I know to be untrue – that Galileo invented the Spinning Jenny, that one should support Manchester United, that King Joffrey is the true hero of Game of Thrones. But on some matters he has what Tony Blair calls an “irreducible core”, and one that burns white-hot. He is zealous for press freedom. He strains at the leash for confrontation with Iran. (Or is it Iraq? I forget.) He fervently believes that the poorest children have the most to gain from a traditional education. Hence his swipe at Eton’s privileged position in today’s interview, which will set a tiger among the dovecots.
I think that it is because he believes these things – and others – that he is swimming, for the moment, in hot water. Unlike some politicians, Gove isn’t in office for the ride. He wants to use it to effect change. And he knows full well that his opportunities for doing so may be running out. The Education Secretary may not be a Minister at all come the summer of 2015. Hence the sense of impatience that he increasingly carries about him, like an aura. The further reforms for which he chafes – more academies, more free schools, better inspections, more rigorous exams – are as timely as ever. But time for them, and for Gove himself, may be running out.