Behind Michael Gove’s desk stands an imposing McCarthy-era poster which says: ‘Sure I want to fight Communism — but how?’ In their less charitable moments, Tories may argue that his Department of Education is as good a place as any to start. The strength of its grip over state schools has long been the subject of political laments and Yes, Minister sketches. Confronting the educational establishment was too much for the Blair reformers and even the Thatcher government. But Gove, the least likely of political warriors, finally appears to be making progress.
‘Some things I never imagined we’d be able to accomplish alone, let alone in a coalition government, so relatively quickly,’ he says, when we meet in his office. His Academies Act has allowed most English secondary schools to be freed from government control. His next mission is to rewrite the rules for teachers’ pay, replacing the pay-by-time-served system with pay on merit. This would give head teachers the power to poach a brilliant maths teacher, for example — or sack a bad one. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, but for the teaching unions it is nothing short of a declaration of war. ‘The trade unions have regarded this as their apostles’ creed,’ says Gove. But national pay bargaining, he says, is an insult to the skill of teachers. ‘If you treat everyone as though they’re merely an interchangeable widget in a machine, then that robs the teaching profession of its sacred role.’ The National Union of Teachers disagrees, and is muttering about a nationwide strike. Gove spent 18 months leading up to this point — is he prepared? ‘I hope I am,’ he says. ‘And I don’t believe that it’s a winning argument for the trades unions to say: “We do not want to pay good teachers more.”’
It’s not his only battle. Another is persuading state schools to prepare pupils for top universities. Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, a watchdog for university applications, recently complained about the ‘dreadful snobbery’ in some schools ‘about whether people go to university’. When I mention this to Gove, he suddenly goes quiet — in the way of a man moved beyond apoplexy. He walks over to his desk and picks up what he describes as ‘my new favourite book’: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which quotes from hundreds of memoirs to show how the poor educated themselves.
Gove reads out the quotes from a Durham miner, cited in the book, who was reading Hugo and Dumas aged 14. Then a passage by a girl who felt a ‘ritual of eternal love’ in Keats. ‘Here you have a 13-year-old, in care, in 1928, who is reading Keats and Tennyson,’ Gove says, his voice rising, ‘and some people say that it’s snobbery for children to go to university. It is snobbery to say that working-class people cannot achieve in the same way as others and I’ve had it up to here with people saying: “Oh, don’t expect too much of them.”’ The last person who made this observation, he says, ‘was Rick Santorum in America — and we regarded that as a view of the ramapithecan right’.
Gove, of course, was once the 13-year-old adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger — with his nose doubtless buried deep in Burns, Milton and other books that might contain words like ‘ramapithecan’. His parents, recognising his talent, forswore holidays so they could afford to send him to private school. Oxford came next, then journalism. He was once my news editor at the Times, where unkind souls declared him too nice — ‘too polite’ — to get very far. He now has the reverse problem. He is tipped for the Tory leadership so regularly that he is running out of ways to rule himself out. (‘I know what it takes to be in that job,’ he once told me. ‘And I just know that I don’t have it.’)
But when asked what the Tories must do to win in 2015, he comes forward with what sounds like a personal manifesto. There are Tories, he says, who are concerned with issues like whether ‘we need to have a better ground game in Worcestershire — and that’s great, I’m glad there are people like that. But my approach is to find the biggest issues that we face, make an argument that we think is right, try to carry as many people with us as possible.’ It’s true what Tony Blair said, he says: ‘The right policy is the right politics.’
Gove says that being in politics has made him admire Blair more. ‘But with one exception: Europe. I have become more Eurosceptic as a result of having been in government.’ His enmity is born of practical experience, seeing how ‘things like EU procurement law or the ECHR inhibit the capacity of an elected government to deliver on what people want’. And if an ‘in-or-out’ referendum were held tomorrow, how would he vote? ‘It’s a secret ballot,’ he says with a grin. He will say only that he trusts David Cameron, who ‘has the guile and the steel and above all the sense of what is in Britain’s interests’ to negotiate an answer to the European question.
Gove heaps praise on Cameron. ‘There are some Tories who are influenced by their understanding of economics, or by their admiration for particular figures from our past,’ he says. ‘Some say they are in the Macmillanite tradition, for example. But David doesn’t need to do that: he is just instinctive. There are some who seek to rationalise their writing or their music, and others who just do it naturally. David is the Conservative equivalent of a flair player, someone whose talent is natural.’
But Gove is almost as nice about Ed Miliband. ‘David Miliband is actually a chillier figure,’ he says. ‘Ed has a warmth about him and a sense of humour, which means I find it difficult to be harsh about him. He’s a nice person, and in politics for the right reasons.’ But Miliband’s recent embrace of Disraeli, Gove says, is revealing. ‘In Disraeli, he chose someone as a hero who was a reactionary in the 1870s and a reactionary in the 1840s. In the same way as Disraeli romanticised the past, so does Ed Miliband. He romanticises the Crosland model of comprehensives and the Attlee era of austerity.’
Gove has more kind words for the Liberal Democrats, with whom he enjoys governing. I ask if, come the election, he will be uncomfortable with the idea of Conservatives in Somerset trying to bring down his deputy, David Laws. ‘We’re not thinking about the election,’ he says. ‘If we did, then that might lead to both of us having to face something difficult. So, rather like in a holiday romance, you enjoy it. If you’re getting on well, then you live in the moment and have as good a time as possible.’ And at the end of the coalition? ‘Obviously, if you love someone, set them free. But at the moment I’m living in the moment — without thinking ahead.’
He is about to take his first ever winter holiday abroad, taking his family to a ski resort in Colorado. They’ll all be going to church on Christmas Day. When I ask about rumours that he may convert to Catholicism, he laughs loudly. ‘I think that politicians should never talk about their own religious faith.’ And rumours that he is selling his London flat, thus disbanding the Cameroon Notting Hill clan, are unfounded. He put his London house on the market, he says, ‘just to test the water’, and admits he is ‘not keen to move’.
He may, however, want to move the Department of Education. ‘By the end of this parliament, we’ll have been able to reduce numbers in the department by more than a quarter.’ And the office itself? ‘It’s a very handsome building, I don’t see why you couldn’t have a school on the first and ground floor,’ he says. ‘There are plenty of other government buildings that we can move to.’
So head teachers will soon have the power to poach, hire and fire. And Gove will have taken charge of Europe’s largest school bureaucracy, unclenched its fist, stripped away many of its powers, evicted its staff, then opened a free school in its old HQ as if to make a point. Quite an achievement for a first-time minister. No wonder so many in Westminster are wondering what he will do as a follow-up.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012