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7/100: Michael Gove #TheRight100

ConservativeHome has launched a 40,000 word guide to the one hundred most influential people and groups on the Right. During this week we are publishing seven of the profiles contained in that guide. If you do not subscribe to the ConservativeHome Quarterly you can purchase a copy by sending a £20 cheque, payable to ConservativeHome, to Michelle Hollands, ConservativeHome, 5 The Sanctuary, Westminster SW1P 3JS.

Gove IDCC2

David Cameron, Michael Gove's friend and patron, is at heart a Home Counties-reared, rather posh, old-fashioned One Nation Conservative.  George Osborne, another friend and close colleague, is a London-raised social and economic liberal.  Though both men are primarily calculating professional politicians, their instincts and prejudices are easy to weigh.  Gove himself is a more elusive personality.

    The man at the heart of the Government's education reforms - the area to date in which it has most achieved its ambitions - doesn't know his birth parents: he was adopted.  His father ran a fish processing business; his mother was a laboratory assistant.  He was raised not in the south of England, but in Aberdeen, and educated not at a famous public school - let alone Eton - but at Robert Gordon's College, an independent day school to which he won a scholarship.

    This unsettling vantage may help to explain some of the paradoxes of the Education Secretary.  A Minister who though both intellectually and politically gifted is seldom named during the old game of naming future Conservative leaders.  The exquisitely polite boulevardier who is also a ruthlessly forensic debater.  The late-to-learn driver with a fear of flying who showed an early zest for confrontational war on terror.  The champion of Israel who is yet to visit the country.  The journalistic hammer of the first Blair Government in Fleet Street who transformed himself into an early Tory moderniser and admirer of the Labour Prime Minister who waged the Iraq War and set up academies.


To be sure, very many top Conservative politicians trod the same path from the skinhead gestures of the late William Hague leadership period to the smoothie politics of the Coalition.  But there is something peculiarly impenetrable about the dazzlingly eloquent and terrifyingly gifted Gove, one of the very few modern politicians to have serious intellectual and literary interests outside politics: for a long time, he was a star of the cultural Newsnight Review on Friday.

    After school came Oxford, then a brief period as a journalist in Aberdeen in which he was involved in a strike over union recognition, and then London and the recognition that his talents deserved: first as a Scottish television reporter and then through the BBC to working as a leader writer on The Times, where he rose to be a columnist and Assistant Editor.  The angular Gove also took a brief turn at TV presenting on a Channel 4 show  and had a cameo role as a Vicar in a family comedy.

    The Times taught him how mazy the twists and turns of politics can be, if he didn't know already.  Like Boris Johnson, another prized commentator of his generation, Gove wanted to be a political actor rather than a spectator, and his mind was already turning to the Commons when he wrote a biography of Michael Portillo, and was sometimes put up by his paper on television.  Portillo's bid to lead the Tories failed and the title of Gove's biography, The Future of the Right, thus proved inapposite.  And Gove was handed the tricky task of fronting the paper's case in its legal and media struggle against Lord Ashcroft, then the Conservative Party's Treasurer.

    He grew, too, to display a columnar admiration for Blair's liberal internationalism abroad and public service reforms at home.  None of this stopped him reaching a rare achievement: once on the Tory candidates list, he was selected at his first shot - for Surrey Heath, a deep blue shire counties constituency.  The man who had once been rejected by Conservative Central Office as "insufficiently political" and "insufficiently Conservative" - before he began his clamber up the journalistic ladder - was now set to blaze a winning trail through the Parliamentary Conservative Party.

    Gove's early involvement with the think tank Policy Exchange and with C-Change, a ginger group for modernisation, had cemented his relations with the upwardly mobile Cameron-and-Osborne generation, to which he was linked socially as well as politically.  (For example, the historian Amanda Foreman, a member of this right-of-centre extended social family, is a former girlfriend.)  The new MP was based in the West Kensington hinterland of what would become known as "The Notting Hill set".  Cameron, then Shadow Education Secretary, got Gove appointed as his Parliamentary Private Secretary - thus neatly ensuring that the latter would not support the leadership bid of his rival, David Davis.

    After Cameron was elected leader, Gove was made first Shadow Housing Minister and then Shadow Education Secretary.  His confidence took a serious knock during the expenses scandal, during which he risked a public meeting in his constituency to explain his claims.  Harassed post-election by his opposite number from Labour's final term, Ed Balls, he made an uncertain start as Education Secretary.  He ran into trouble over cuts to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.  He was pursued by Balls's replacement, Andy Burnham, over the funding of school sport.  The courts rapped his knuckles over BSF.  But he has kept going.  Over a year on, the first trance of his beloved Free Schools have opened and he has doubled the number of academies in a year.

    Although the agile Gove is a tricky man to pin down, three points emerge from his career to date.

    The first is that there is no reason to doubt that this formidably literate Scot has a real passion for education as an encounter with "the best that has been thought and said".  His end is a restoration of a more traditional model of education, and the main means are academies and free schools.  He has been lucky: unlike Andrew Lansley at health, academies are a Labour idea, championed by Blair and Lord Adonis.  Labour is therefore in a poor position to attack them.  He has been astute: careful to encourage a network of free school supporters, relentless at courting journalists, skilled at making forays for teacher support by pushing measures to restore discipline in schools.

    The second is that there is no sign that his pro-Jewish, anti-Islamist, pro-Israel, anti-Repubican, neo-conservative stance is up for negotiation.  The gawky Education Secretary has a taste for conflict.  His liberal interventionist work "Celsius 7/7" is well known.  His "The Price of Peace" is not: it was a vigorous critique of Northern Ireland's peace process.  Gove has a strong sense of good warring with evil - one that exploded into life during his strong television performances in the wake of the recent riots.  He would hate being Chancellor.  But he would relish challenging established verities in the Foreign Office and jump at the chance of toughening up the Home Office - which a suspicious Home Office team believe he has his eye on.

    The third is that he's underestimated as an operating politician.  The conventional view is that Gove is a gifted intellectual who has taken up politics.  It is true that the Education Secretary, though a good friend of the Prime Minister, isn't quite a member of Downing Street's inmost circle: unlike Osborne, he isn't a central strategist whose presence is constantly required.  (He has also taken a warmer view of the Liberal Democrats to date, flirting with a "Yes" vote in the AV referendum.)  And his passion for liberal democracy abroad is sometimes seen as esoteric.  But he has recruited a first-rate team of special advisers - Dominic Cummings, Henry de Zoute - and overhauled his media office by bringing in former lobby journalist Gabriel Milland and campaigning expert James Frayne.

    In other words, don't write him off completely as a future leader, and he may win further promotion in any event if not left to see his school reforms through.  He is married to Sarah Vine, a Times journalist who regularly reveals intimate details of their home life in her columns, and has a son and a daughter.