It has been some week for education secretary Michael Gove. When someone decides to write his biography, as will surely happen soon, the events of early February 2013 are certain to feature prominently. Will recent days be looked back on as a time when a talented cabinet minister and darling of the Tory right shot his bolt and saw his ambition to become prime minister turn to dust? Or will they be viewed in retrospect as the period when he learned some hard lessons about how to run a department, and in so doing strengthened his position in the long run?
Despite his public denials, Gove wants to be prime minister. His friends make that perfectly clear in private. Perhaps aware that he may come across as too mild-mannered and cerebral to be credible as a leader, he has surrounded himself with a team of advisers who are brazenly political, prepared to meddle in the dark arts of intrigue and battle for their man in the most forthright way possible within government. Gove's courtiers in the Department for Education [DfE] are now being compared in Whitehall with the team of able but ruthless operators which Gordon Brown gathered around him when he began agitating to get Tony Blair out of No 10 early in Labour's second term.
Last weekend the Observer offered a first insight into these courtiers' methods when we reported that Gove's special advisers Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete were believed by senior Tories to be running an anonymous Twitter feed called @toryeducation, which pumps out political propaganda and smears journalists and any others who raise questions about the wisdom of Gove's policies.
Such behaviour is a clear breach of the special advisers' and civil service code, which explicitly bans personal attacks or the dissemination of propaganda by people within government and whose salaries are paid by the taxpayer. But so confident are those responsible that – despite growing concern about their methods inside No 10, and calls from Labour for a full inquiry by the cabinet secretary – they have used the same Twitter account all week in defiance of the rules.
Undeterred, Gove was in fine fettle on Tuesday evening, accusing Labour in a typically rumbustious and at times amusing speech of trying to entrench privilege. He compared the party's instincts on education with the aristocrats in the ITV drama Downton Abbey.
"Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity," said Gove, who was adopted aged four and brought up in Aberdeen without the silver spoon of opportunity enjoyed by many of his cabinet colleagues. "They think working class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves."
But as he delivered that speech Gove knew he would be the one taking, not dishing out, the attacks over the coming days. Last Wednesday evening news leaked out that the education secretary was embarking on one of the biggest policy U-turns of this parliament. He was abandoning plans to scrap GCSEs in core subjects and replace them with examinations based on O-levels, following intense opposition from the education establishment and the Tories' coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. His civil servants had also warned him that his plan to move to a franchise system, under which a single exam board would be awarded contracts to run exams in each subject, would break EU competition rules. Gove made a statement to the Commons on Thursday, saying the plans on which he had been working for many months had been "a bridge too far".
Labour saw its chance. Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, accused Gove, predictably, of a "humiliating climbdown", but hit home with his follow-up. The volte-face, said Twigg, "shows why he should have listened to business leaders, headteachers and experts in the first place and not come up with a plan on the back of an envelope. He needs to go back to the drawing board." Ben Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, observed that it might be better if the coalition agreed policies before it announced them.
Both appeared to be hinting at wider concerns about Gove's entire political operation – concerns that are shared in No 10. In Downing Street, there is irritation at the way Gove and his coterie of advisers shoot from the hip on policy and fail to consult not only professionals in the field but also others in government.
The plans to return to O-levels were leaked to the Daily Mail last June, without No 10 having the faintest idea of what was coming. There were frosty exchanges between Gove's advisers and Downing Street at the time.
Gove's advisers defended themselves in terms that shocked special advisers in other departments and the office of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. One fellow special adviser described the behaviour of Gove's team as "feral". Cummings, whose initial appointment as a special adviser was blocked by Andy Coulson in 2010, is singled out for particular loathing. Increasingly the view in the coalition, from Clegg's team to David Cameron's, is that Gove is running a ruthless, dangerous and, on occasions, wild operation to further his ambitions in defiance of almost anyone else: his civil servants, the education establishment and other ministers included.
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