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Measuring Michael Gove

Last Updated: Friday, February 11th, 2011

How do voters assess a Cabinet Minister – how he’s doing, what progress he’s making, whether he’s going up or down?  The answer in each case is largely shaped by the media, national and (especially) local.  And the media tends to form it by agreeing – informally, tacitly, even unconsciously – measurements by which to judge.

Seeing this happen is a bit like watching birds on a fence in autumn.  Part of a group will fly off in one direction, and then return to settle.  This movement continues, with more and more joining in, until the whole body flies off in one direction.  Journalists can do so as suddenly as birds, and when this happens politicians should beware.

This weekend, for example, opinion formers may well decide that Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, is “beleaguered” or “embattled”, in the wake of the Government’s climb down over forest sales.  Andrew Lansley is also potentially vulnerable over his NHS overhaul, as is Theresa May over police reform.

But the Cabinet Minister most exposed to date, in relation to public services, has been Michael Gove.  The Education Secretary had a torrid summer over his Building Schools for the Future programme and a tricky autumn over schools sport funding.  The courts ruled earlier today that some of his decisions on the first matter must be reviewed.

Gove faces a further problem.  The policy with which he’s most identified is the free schools programme.  This thus risks becoming the media yardstick by which he’s judged.  Gove, consequently, is exposed if the plan doesn’t take wing.  As he is if results – another media fixation – worsen as exams become more rigorous.

Furthermore, David Cameron dislikes reshuffles, so no Cabinet Minister can rely on being moved on swiftly, leaving any problems to be sorted by his successor.  I’ve been talking to senior sources about the Education Department’s plans, and can begin to see a way in which Gove’s likely to alter perceptions of his work – or at least try to.

Or rather, two ways.  The first is via academies – by broadening and deepening Tony Blair’s plan, overseen by Andrew Adonis, of giving heads, teachers and schools more freedoms.  This is in any event a mainstay of Gove’s strategy.  The second is via the baccalaureate – a means of measuring success in a more traditional range of studies.

When the Conservative Governments of the 1980s sold council houses to their tenants,  the scheme eventually became so entrenched that Labour dropped its opposition to it.  The same is true – at least on paper – of academies.  The question is where the tipping point is.  At present, academies make up some 10% of schools.

Some commentators believe that this is already enough to be decisive.  Sources tentatively suggest that 20% may be nearer the mark.  Reaching this ought not to be mission impossible.  At the same time, more schools taking on the baccalaureate would raise standards faster.  At present, about 15% or so do it.

It may just be that in a few years time the media flock will settle to the view that academies are as established a part of the social landscape as council house sales, that more schools are taking the baccalaureate and that – whatever happens to free schools – Gove is a political as well as well as an educational success.

The only other political strategy open to Gove is that Blair pursued with the NHS – namely, to hope that positive personal experiences of the service outweigh negative national stories.  It’s the local rather than the national road to success.  But Blair coupled his plan with raising NHS spending markedly during a boom.  Gove is in a very different position.

Paul Goodman




A-Listers are less likely to vote against the Government than the rest of the 2010 intake

“I concluded that of the 147 new Conservative MPs elected for the first time last year, those 38 who had been on the party’s original “priority list” of 100 candidates were more likely to have been appointed parliamentary private secretaries.  I have now taken a look at how rebellious those 38 have been, compared to the rest of the 2010 intake and the conclusions are even clearer.  Of the 38 A-Listers, eight – equivalent to 21% – have voted against the whip on substantive government matters.” – Jonathan Isaby.  Read More:

David Cameron sends a message to Westminster and Whitehall: treat extremists like racists. Now he must make it happen.

“David Cameron’s security speech today does everything that Charles Moore suggested it might and I hoped it would.  It’s the most significant pronouncement on “Islamist extremism” – as the Prime Minister starkly labels it – from a British politician since 7/7.  This isn’t because it makes new policy.  Every major point in it was agreed before the last election, and has been made by Ministers since May.  Rather, it’s because it breaks cultural ground.  Cameron wants to make extremism as unacceptable as racism: indeed, he explicitly compares that claimed in the name of Islam with that asserted in the name of race.” – Paul Goodman. Read More:

Conservatives must fight for the moral high ground

“Is it any accident that Iain Duncan Smith became one of the country’s most popular Conservative politicians by pursuing his genuine commitment to social justice? The long-term health of the Conservative Party depends upon articulating a moral mission. Not as a bolt-on extra but as a central purpose. Conservative values are about personal responsibility; rewarding effort; standing by people who save for the future; honouring veterans and those who put something back into the community, rather than always taking from it; protecting the most disadvantaged.” – Tim Montgomerie. Read More:

Ed Watkins: The narrow scope of the English Baccalaureate undermines Michael Gove’s credentials as a liberalising reformer

“As Conservatives, we should all be wary of the power of government being used to promote the personal prejudices of the men and women in government. In this case it is quite right that the government should encourage rigorous study of subjects and enshrine that principle in the English Baccalaureate. What it should not do after that is shut out subjects in which rigorous study does take place, where the students are made to work hard while gaining skills and knowledge.  We should not be happy to see a world in which our own government has prescribed 70% of the post-14 curriculum (80% in many church schools where R.E. is compulsory) with so little room for recognising academic achievement outside its narrow boundaries.” – Ed Watkins.  Read More:


Project Merlin – Have we forgotten what got us into this mess?

“Recent history should make us cautious when politicians argue that controls over bank lending should be relaxed. As Nicholas Boys Smith showed in 2009 government policy under Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W Bush played a central role in creating the subprime mortgage market.  This collapse in this subprime mortgage market was a major trigger of the global financial crisis and is one reason we are in the mess we are in. While there may be a case for improving UK bank’s lending processes, politically driven targets for bank lending should be resisted. Project Merlin risks repeating past mistakes.” – Patrick Nolan.  Read More:



Today’s vote on prisoners’ rights is an historic opportunity to draw a line in the sand on European power

“The government promises to do the minimum required to comply with the ruling. It is considering proposals to give the right to vote only to those prisoners serving shorter sentences. This, however, is far from an ideal solution. Ken Clarke claims this is not about giving rapists the vote. Yet if the vote is given to prisoners serving less than 4 years, 28,000 will get the vote including robbers, rapists and drug dealers. If the vote is given to prisoners serving 1 year or less, over 8,000 will still get the vote, including violent, sexual, robbery and burglary offenders.” – David Davis MP.  Read More:

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