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Michael Gove will be more powerful outside politics

Don't bet against him. Credit: Getty

May 25, 2024 - 12:00pm

When asked to roll-call the achievements from 14 long years in office, even the most fervent Conservative Party activist will struggle. One thing is guaranteed, however: Michael Gove’s school reforms will be near the top of their short list. The veteran MP has announced that he is standing down from his Lib Dem target seat of Surrey Heath at the election, sunsetting a near-20-year Parliamentary career — most of it spent in the Cabinet.

Gove first made his name as a reformer while education secretary early on in David Cameron’s government. Firstly by putting rocket boosters on the late New Labour policy of academising schools, giving them the freedom to innovate by making them independent of local authority control, and secondly by giving schools minister Nick Gibb full backing to revolutionise reading standards by introducing phonics to the curriculum.

Both successful reforms saw Gove rally against “The Blob”, the contemptuous moniker he applied to what he saw as an education sector establishment that opposed just about any change to a soft, fluffy, “learning to learn” teaching philosophy, as opposed to a more direct, “chalkboard” pedagogy. Working with a certain Dominic Cummings as his special advisor until 2014, it would not be the last time that Gove would sail headlong against the prevailing establishment winds.

After loudly rubbing up the education profession the wrong way, Gove was demoted to the whips office by Cameron, who sought a rather quieter set of headlines from the Education Department in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Undeterred by this temporary setback, it didn’t take long for Gove to return to form as justice secretary after the 2015 election. He immediately set about unwinding the unpopular legacy of his predecessor, Chris Grayling — and continued to build on his reputation as one of Whitehall’s most effective ministers.

But Gove’s very strengths of being forthright, cerebral and determined can also be his Achilles heel, reflecting in the mirror as combativeness and head-over-heart politics. Never was this more clearly on display than during the EU referendum campaign, when breaking ranks and rejoining Cummings to become a figurehead at the Vote Leave campaign saw his close friendship with Cameron publicly break down.

Taking a dim view of his antics during the referendum campaign, including brutally capsizing Boris Johnson’s leadership bid, Theresa May booted him out of the Cabinet upon being appointed prime minister. But just like after his last demotion, it didn’t take long for him to bounce back. Severely weakened by the outcome of the 2017 election and in need of both Cabinet talent and political allies, May returned Gove to the fold, where he won over civil servants and the farming community at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with a more sympathetic and listening ear.

Oscar Wilde said that true friends stab you in the front, and in this spirit Johnson once again invited Gove into Cabinet in 2019 — despite his first Tory leadership bid being publicly nuked by Gove’s eviscerating criticisms of his personal qualities. Even the most reluctant prime ministers seem compelled to include him, in recognition of his hard-won political talents and Whitehall experience.

Yet more recently, as Sunak’s Levelling Up Secretary, it’s all felt rather lacklustre, with a series of “strategic retreats” on housing targets, and ground rent and leasehold reforms. Gove is not a miracle worker — even his considerable political talents could not undo a decade of Tory intellectual atrophy on housing and planning, and turn water into wine. Stepping down is a clear signal that he thinks he will have more impact outside the Commons, commenting and lobbing grenades from afar at the incoming Labour government.

It’s also an implicit recognition of the ideological mess the Conservatives are in — it will take at least two terms for the Tory Party to rebuild its identity and rediscover its political raison d’ĂȘtre. Life is too short to waste a decade in Opposition, but don’t expect Gove to be quiet in the meantime. Stepping down will not mean stepping back. He will surely demonstrate his bouncebackability once again.


James Sean Dickson is an analyst and journalist who Substacks at Himbonomics.

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Mike Carr
Mike Carr
29 days ago

Depends how you identify power I suppose. Shouting from the sidelines doesn’t demonstrate power to me, rather the lack of it.

El Uro
El Uro
29 days ago

Never was this more clearly on display than during the EU referendum campaign, when breaking ranks and rejoining Cummings to become a figurehead at the Vote Leave campaign saw his close friendship with Cameron publicly break down.
.
The question is, what is better: to be good for a friend or to be good for the country?
And again identity! It seems that no UnHerd author can write an article without cramming this word in there, you know.

David Morley
David Morley
29 days ago

a series of â€œstrategic retreats” on housing targets

At this point he was bluntly in the wrong party to push through the needed policies against nimbyism and vested interests. You can’t alienate your own voters, even they are the blockers.

David Morley
David Morley
29 days ago

soft, fluffy, “learning to learn” teaching philosophy

I wonder how much of this was what was really going on in the classroom. And in the age of the internet, learner independence is something of a priority.

The real issue is that those in education take insufficient notice of what psychology is telling us about how memory works. It was constructivist and anti authority approaches which were misguided not the idea that we should learn how to learn.

No criticism of Gove here – it’s obvious from his reading at the time that he knew where the problem lay.

David Morley
David Morley
29 days ago

Gove seems to have thought he didn’t the personality or charisma to be PM. I think he was right. But given the shower we have had, maybe he should have given it a shot.

Phil Day
Phil Day
29 days ago

Hoping for a place in the Lords maybe – might be fun watching the mischief he could get up to in that chamber.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
29 days ago
Reply to  Phil Day

You want to try that again, sport?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
28 days ago

Plonk Socialist is unable to grasp that Unherd people dislike his innards, to put it more politely than he deserves.

Phil Day
Phil Day
28 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

In his defence (on this occasion at least) he was referring to the fact that I had omitted ‘Lords’ from my original comment – hence the edit.

Penny Rose
Penny Rose
29 days ago

Not if it depends on him appearing on ‘Strictly’ – which apparently is likely.

Paul T
Paul T
28 days ago

More…powerful than you can possibly imagine…?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
28 days ago

His intellectual powers notwithstanding, Gove’s greatest strength has always been his moves on the dance floor.

Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
26 days ago

This article is all of a piece with the general impression one has of Michael Gove. It’s hard to know what to make of it. He is always presented as “incredibly able”, a “very valuable asset” to any administration, and his very success, sells itself. But I’ve always suspected that his success was a sign of the very dysfunctionality at the heart of the Conservative party. Where was he on lockdown? This is the question I always ask of any politician. And… yes…for all his ability, his wonderful intellect, his excellent relationships with the civil service, the respect he commands for his wisdom…… He was, of course, a lockdown zealot.

Somebody needs to explain to me why, if we never saw him again for the rest of our lives, Britain would be any of the worse off.