The Tories have lost the one man who knew how to defeat the Blob

Michael Gove
Michael Gove - Paul Grover

Public life is weakened by Michael Gove’s leaving it. He has his faults, as do we all, but he is immensely able, and ability will be in short supply after the election. I must declare an interest: I have known him for 30 years, and we are friends. We have had disagreements; but he is one of the most considerable figures of this era of Conservative-led rule.

When in 2010 he became education secretary, he proved his effectiveness in driving through reforms that revived traditional learning and teaching methods. This led to higher standards. The Programme for International Student Assessment, which evaluates 15-year-old students, showed him that the best performing countries had rigorous accountability, allowed head teachers greater ease to hire and fire, an “aspirational” core curriculum and emphasis on success. In 2012, England was below Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea. By 2022 England’s mean Pisa score of 492 in maths beat an OECD average of 472. In that subject – vital for the country’s future – England came 11th out of 81, up from 17th in 2018.

The unions hated Mr Gove’s reforms, which confronted the failed ideologies they had imposed since the 1960s, and exposed bad teachers. They declared war on him, something he should wear as a badge of honour. Shamefully, David Cameron was intimidated, demoting Mr Gove to chief whip. He then served for a year as Lord Chancellor. There as at Education, he had the character and grip to be master in his own house, not to delegate its running to civil servants.

He coined the term “The Blob” to describe the army of bureaucrats who fought to prevent ministers from doing what they were elected to do. Perhaps the most shameful failure of the last 14 years is that the need to reduce the size and power of the Civil Service was never acted upon. Had colleagues inferior to Mr Gove in intelligence and foresight heeded his warnings, the paralysis the Government has increasingly suffered, and its inability to sustain Conservative policies and values, might have been mitigated.

Although he gets little credit for Brexit, it was Mr Gove who, on the morning after David Cameron announced the referendum, produced a sincere and eloquent statement of why he was exercising his right to disagree with the advice to remain – an act some painted as disloyal. It was not, because Mr Cameron allowed dissent, but it was principled, unlike Boris Johnson’s.

Mr Gove’s reputation was damaged by his decision to desert Mr Johnson’s aborted campaign for the party leadership, and then to stand himself. It looked untrustworthy: a label Theresa May reinforced by refusing to offer him a job and telling him “to go and learn about loyalty on the backbenches”. It was a fatuous remark. Mr Gove, having been promised the job of chancellor, abandoned Mr Johnson because he learned he had also promised it to Andrea Leadsom.

It is hard to blame him, in those circumstances, for his actions. He was unwise to seek the leadership himself, because he ought to have known he lacked the necessary support. Paradoxically, what Disraeli called “the stupid party” has long distrusted anyone appearing to be an intellectual, and Mr Gove was no exception. He returned, most recently as housing and levelling-up minister. An unhealthily authoritarian attitude to restrictions during the pandemic lockdown annoyed some colleagues, but his misjudgments were hardly unique. However, he has long been the politician most alert to the dangers of extremism in our discourse and society.

The sadness of his career is that, after Education, he never held an office in which he might have turned the tide for his party. He had the capability to bring some order to the NHS. He might have controlled the benefits system. He might have been a sufficiently capable Home Secretary to limit the ruinous immigration crisis. However, people less effective, and less threatening to a weak prime minister, took the jobs. Like many of Mr Gove’s friends, I expect him to go back to Fleet Street. If so, it will be journalism’s gain.

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