As education secretary, Michael Gove was one of the most polarising figures in politics – a darling of the Tory right and a bête noire to much of the teaching profession.
According to a new book about the first five years of David Cameron’s premiership, the prime minister removed Mr Gove from his position at the Department for Education because he had become a political “liability”, with one Downing Street source describing him simply as being “too Michael”.
Specifically he had alienated headteachers and mishandled the fallout of what became known as the Trojan Horse scandal over radicalisation in Birmingham schools.
Cameron at 10: The Inside Story 2010-2015, penned by former master of Wellington College Anthony Seldon and journalist Peter Snowdon, gives an account of Mr Cameron’s first term as prime minister. The book devotes an entire chapter to his shock decision in July 2014 to remove Mr Gove as education secretary and demote him to chief whip.
In the months leading up to his dismissal, Mr Gove had been enduring a fractious relationship with Cabinet colleagues and a downright hostile one with the teaching profession.
At the time of the reshuffle, Downing Street aides briefed the papers that Mr Gove was polling badly when it came to the public and it was for that reason he had to go. But Cameron at 10 sheds a different light on the move, stating that it was decided “long before” the results of any such polls came back. Instead, the reason for the minister’s departure was his incapacity to “keep his head down” and stay out of the newspapers.
Spats and scandals
A series of high-profile controversies and political spats eventually led to Mr Gove’s downfall, the book suggests. First was his unpopularity with those in the teaching profession, particularly headteachers who booed him at the NAHT union conference.
Then came his criticism of “the Left’s Blackadder depiction of World War One”, and his falling out with Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw over the sacking of the watchdog’s chair Baroness Sally Morgan.
But the death knell came when he became embroiled in a political spat with home secretary Theresa May over who was to blame for the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham.
The book quotes a source saying, “Michael has done this over and over again – had a row internally and then leaked it – and people are frankly fed up with it.” It continues: “According to another aide, ‘he had become a liability. He was too Michael.’ ”
One former departmental source speaking to TES dismissed the idea that Mr Gove polled badly with the general public. “The idea that mistakes were made in education is rubbish. His personal ratings weren’t great, but the general public didn’t know who he was, and those that did were most likely teachers and they didn’t like him anyway,” the insider said.
“The policies themselves always went down extremely well with the public, especially with parents. Focusing on academic subjects, cracking down on behaviour, removing poor teachers – all that was well-liked. So, all the polling stuff, I did not buy. So it was a surprise that he lost his brief.”
Putting on the Liberal brakes
Cameron at 10 also gives an insight into the lengths to which the Liberal Democrats put a brake on the Conservatives’ education reforms, particularly when it came to exams.
In an interview for the book, Mr Gove, now justice secretary, said: “I got the PM to agree to replace GCSEs: but when the Lib Dems cut up rough, we had to negotiate a compromise. It was a great shame.”
Mr Gove added that his frustration grew as he believed the Lib Dems saw him as a ripe political target: “I would get David [Cameron] to agree to various policies, but then people would get to Nick [Clegg], and we lost that support.”
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