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Michael Gove's O-level gambit is a sign of a deeper frustration. Where will it take him?

By Paul Goodman
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Michael Gove began this Government as one of the Coalition's most committed supporters.  He seemed to delight in hoping to do Labour what its most successful modern leader, Tony Blair, had dreamed of doing to the Conservatives: that's to say, driving them to the margins of British politics by forming a semi-permanent coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  He and Chris Huhne made a joint presentation on political strategy at a Cabinet awayday planning session after the Coalition was formed.  At one point, he backed Liberal Democrat local council candidates against Labour in Hull, to the anger of local Conservatives.  He even pondered going further by supporting AV in the referendum on electoral change.

This was a reminder that the biographer of Michael Portillo was an early moderniser and one of the original Cameroons in the 2005 leadership contest.  Significantly, he is a guide to the loyalist 2020 Group, having written its mission statement.  He is not really a member of the party's right.  None the less, his stewardship of the Education Department has thrilled it.  Essentially, Mr Gove is championing traditional values in a modern setting: although the language in which he presents his policies is progressive - justice and equality are two of his watchwords - their irreducible core, to borrow another of the Blairite phrases he tends to smile on, is unrepentantly old-fashioned.

So although Mr Gove is not exactly a right-wing Tory, his idea of education is none the less deeply conservative.  To him, education is a good in itself, "the best of all that has been thought and said", not simply the acquisition of skills (however important this may be) or a utilitarian preparation for the world of work (however necessary this is, too).  But what the party's right, not to mention the rest of it, admire most about him is that he is the Conservative member of Cabinet who most makes the weather.  As I wrote yesterday, he will leave a legacy that Labour will find it very hard to dismantle, assuming it wants to: almost half of secondary schools are already academies or are converting.

But it became evident later in the day that there are barriers in the way of the Education Secretary's latest plan, and that more have been put in his way for some time: the extraordinary sense of forward momentum which the Education Secretary generates has not been achieved without opposition.  In a nutshell, Nick Clegg has been striking a yellow pencil through some of Mr Gove's reform plans, and the Education Secretary has responded in some cases by sidestepping Downing Street and briefing these anyway, presumably in an attempt to bounce Number 10 into supporting them.  This was apparently the case with his plan to place a new emphasis on spelling and grammar in the primary school curriculum, which was trailed earlier this month.

And it was evidently so with his proposal to scrap GCSEs and restore O-levels, on which the Daily Mail splashed yesterday morning.  The Liberal Democrats were scarcely likely to support a reform that they believe will turn the hands of the education clock back to the 1980s.  A frustrated Mr Gove appears simply to have briefed them out anyway.  The reaction was predictable.  The Daily Telegraph reports this morning that "the Liberal Democrats expressed fury over the leaked proposals with a senior party source saying Nick Clegg and his colleagues had only learned of the idea when they read the Daily Mail today."  The Guardian claims that although David Cameron agrees with his Education Secretary - and friend - he believes Mr Clegg will veto the Gove plan.

Four points follow.  First, such an outcome would make Mr Gove a martyr not only to the party's right but to much of the rest of it.  Second, the Education Secretary's impatience is another sign of the deep seriousness of purpose that Tim Montgomerie applauds in today's Mail.  I sat in on some of his education meetings at the end of the last Parliament as he prepared for government (their attention to detail was impressive) and felt that the vicissitudes of the expenses scandal had somehow hardened him: that it brought home to him that politics is uncertain, that life at its top is brief, and that he would have to act fast to bring about real change.  There was a reinforcement of the sense that he isn't in the Commons just for the ride.

Third, that sense of purpose and frustration is spilling wider.  Mr Gove is one of the most loquacious contributors to Cabinet discussions (to the irritation of some of his colleagues, blue as well as yellow).  Very simply, he has a view on nearly everything and it's in his nature to share it.  He has clashed with William Hague over Libya, Ken Clarke over Abu Qatada and human rights, and Mr Cameron himself over minimum alcohol pricing - not to mention, outside Cabinet, with Lord Leveson over his enquiry: indeed, he is the only Minister who has had the self-confidence to go into the courtroom and take Lord Leveson on.  It would be wrong to suggest that he no longer supports the Coalition, but his enthusiasm for it isn't quite what it was.

I suspect that at the root of this cooling is a disappointment that this a Government marked less by a shared sense of purpose than compromise over disagreements.  Mr Gove is getting impatient - hence his foray in the Mail yesterday.  It's scarcely surprising that it is followed up this morning by plenty of leadership speculation.  For what it's worth, I don't think the Education Secretary really wants to be party leader and Prime Minister (though you never know), and he has certainly not been campaigning to date for the posts, in the manner of Boris Johnson, or crafting a support structure for the future, like George Osborne.  And despite my unquenchable passion for the Education Secretary I'm not sure such an outcome would be right (though it may turn out to be).

One thing is certain.  Now that Mr Gove's tanks are rolling, they must press on.  He cannot back down now.  Will the Prime Minister back his Deputy, with whom he disagrees on this matter, or his old friend, with whom he agrees?  This is going to be interesting.


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