Why did the "Michael Gove problem" need solving?

23 July 2014 -


Cameron’s sentiment-free move to demote the reformer who garnered pockets of admiration amid wider parental enmity reveals what kind of battleground the next election will be fought on

Mark Fuller

The fallout from last week’s government reshuffle has confirmed that Michael Gove is one of the most fascinating politicians of modern times. Daily reactions to his removal as Education secretary have seen him praised and damned in equal measure, with the displeasure of many conservative commentators just as evident as the jubilation of the teaching fraternity. So what is it about Michael Gove that puts him among the pantheon of divisive politicos, alongside the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and why has it been necessary to demote him?  

Gove is an unabashed reformer. His worldview is that the way in which education is both conceived and delivered in the UK need to dramatically change – and he knows how. This is a contrast to many other holders of high office, who we could loosely label as “custodians”. For instance, while Patrick McLoughlin may be overseeing controversial developments like HS2 as Transport secretary, he is doing so to improve the current rail system rather than to completely overhaul it.


While reformers generally enjoy the support of a cluster of fellow ideological travellers, they inevitably encounter many who do not share their vision of the future. It just so happens that in Gove’s case these naysayers included more or less the entire educational establishment, and therefore all the people and organisations feeling the immediate impact of his reforms.

The result has been a running flow of confrontations with unions, academics and authors of much loved children’s books – among others. Many have said that Gove has been removed from his post because of his unpopularity, particularly among teachers and parents. There is no doubt a degree of truth to this, but it is more likely a constant state of conflict that has done for Gove. 

The Conservatives’ election strategy rests on maintaining an unremitting focus on a simple message – the Party has taken the tough choices required to get the economy back on track, and Labour shouldn’t be allowed to wreck things again. Stories about Gove’s battles against the vested interests of education do not fit into this narrative, and increasingly detract attention from those that do.

By way of contrast, the battles fought by Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith – a reformer in the Gove mould – exemplify the principles the Conservatives are seeking to communicate. Every fight Smith is reported to be having is an attempt to improve the economy by getting more people to be productive members of the workforce, while tackling the deficit by reducing the welfare bill. In many ways, Smith’s reforms have made him just as unpopular as Gove. But he has kept his post because his fights have electoral value.

Michael Gove’s crime is not that his reformist zeal has won him so many enemies – but that they are not the right enemies for the moment.

Mark Fuller is associate director at Linstock Communications

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