Nicky Morgan always had a hard act to follow. Gove had spent years completely immersed in his brief, he is startlingly brainy and what’s more he has a host of good friends in the media (not least at The Times and the Daily Mail). Both personally and in terms of policies (particularly Free Schools) he is a popular figure within the party. For anyone to take over from him as Education Secretary would be a tough gig.
It’s fair to say that Downing Street’s chosen spin on the reshuffle – which can be briefly summarised as “Look how many women we are appointing” – didn’t help. If I were Morgan, I’d have been justifiably peeved that gender rather than talent was the narrative someone chose to tell about the reshuffle.
That was compounded by the follow-up stories, apparently coming from the centre, that emerged as soon as the initial reshuffle headlines were out of the way. Someone let it be known that Gove was moved a) because of his unpopularity with certain groups of voters, such as teachers and b) because the Prime Minister wanted someone to soften the edges, conciliate and win back those groups – something they felt Gove couldn’t do. In short, the new Education Secretary had her job description set out in public.
Having begun by pulling her in that direction, Downing Street has since persisted in pulling her another way, too. The leadership’s hunger for announcements and commentary demands not only new statements of radicalism but also that the Prime Minister be allowed to deliver them.
That’s one of the reasons for the decision today for Cameron to announce an “all-out war on mediocrity”. This poses a few questions: 1) How does the language of “all-out war” fit with the public briefing that they want to soften the perception of Tory education policy? 2) Gove was moved because teachers dislike criticism of failing schools or teachers – does a “war on mediocrity” not necessarily involve identifying them and rooting them out? (The unions are already portraying it as “declaring war on schools”) 3) To what extent is the Education Secretary to be allowed to get on with her job herself?
The details of the Prime Minister’s policy announcement also raise various questions about its legality and practicality.
Worse, an anonymous source in Number 10 has leaked a claim that Gove is “back-seat driving” the Department for Education. The story was portrayed as an attempt to rebuff him for doing so, but if it’s was actually a concern then it should have been dealt with privately. Making the claim public not only embarrasses Morgan, but it forced her to spend time on TV yesterday denying it, rather than being allowed to make her positive case for her plans regarding education policy.
Despite having this thicket to negotiate, Morgan has largely stuck the course on the policy process that Gove began. Early fears that the mission of softening the presentation would involve abandoning the policy haven’t come true. She deserves credit for that.
That said, all the factors above mean that one of Gove’s less-discussed structural changes is at risk. Under Labour, there was no Department for Education – there was Ed Balls’ blobbish Department for Children, Schools and Families. The Coalition rightly cut it back to perform the core job of overseeing education, rather than spreading its tentacles into all sorts of social engineering. It’s in the nature of bureaucracy that it constantly seeks to expand, and there are undoubtedly efforts by some in the DfE to rebuild the empire that they once had. As we’ve noted before, there is still no department dealing with family policy, meaning there’s a vacuum that these activist civil servants can seek to occupy.
Departments are huge, and the teams of ministers and SpAds running them are small. It takes operational independence, clear authority vested in a tight team and a huge amount of nimble work to keep things on track and in check. If Downing Street undermines the Education Secretary’s authority, muddies the message about her mission and also dips in to announce various things itself, then her task of controlling the DfE becomes more difficult.
Finally, there’s another concern on Nicky Morgan’s list: she also needs to commit time to preserve her 3,744 majority in Loughborough. With a tough ministerial gig from the outset, a sometimes rebellious department, intervention from above and an election to fight, it’s remarkable she’s doing as well as she is.